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Music, culture and Blugolds help drive Chippewa Valley revitalization

| Judy Berthiaume

While Ralph Waldo Emerson wasn’t talking about economic development when he said, “One idea lights a thousand candles,” the quote sure works well as a metaphor for what’s happening in downtown Eau Claire.

Five years ago, UW-Eau Claire shared its idea to build a performing arts center in downtown Eau Claire, an area that had seen little new development in many decades.

The opening of the $45 million Confluence Arts Center — a public-private partnership that will serve UW-Eau Claire and the community — is still more than a year away, but already there has been more than $120 million in construction in the area since the arts center was proposed.

New office buildings and apartments, small businesses, modern hotels and diverse restaurants have replaced many vacant buildings and neglected spaces that had dotted the downtown area.

It makes sense that a venue for the arts sits at the heart of all that new growth, several people with ties to the arts and business communities said during a recent event at UW-Eau Claire.

“Creative people always want to do more,” said Zach Halmstad, a UW-Eau Claire graduate and co-founder of JAMF Software. “Creative people often are entrepreneurs so they see gaps and they find ways to fill those gaps. They aren’t afraid to get behind the next great idea.”

Nick Meyer, owner of the arts and culture publication Volume One, agrees, noting that while some creative people do make their living selling their music, many others are entrepreneurs who turn their passion for the arts into successful businesses.

“It really is the arts and culture that are driving our region forward,” Meyer said. “The Confluence is a big part of it.”

Halmstad and Meyer were among the entrepreneurs and musicians who recently came to campus to talk about how the thriving music and arts scene in Eau Claire is driving economic development in the region, and helping to make the Chippewa Valley an attractive place for companies to invest and their employees to live.

The Wisconsin Technology Council hosted the event, “How music plays into Chippewa Valley growth.” The panel of speakers included:

  • Halmstad, co-founder of JAMF Software, owner of the Lismore Hotel and a partner in the Oxbow Hotel, both downtown hotels that have recently been renovated.
  • Meyer, owner of the arts and culture publication Volume One, and its retail and gallery space, The Local Store. He also is a partner in the Oxbow Hotel and The Lakely, a restaurant and music venue.
  • Sean Carey, a UW-Eau Claire graduate who is active in the local music scene, and is a member of the Grammy Award-winning Bon Iver. He also is the booking agent for The Lakely.
  • Jason Jon Anderson, assistant director of conferences and event production at UW-Eau Claire, production director for the Eaux Claires Festival and production manager for Bon Iver.

Five years ago, JAMF had outgrown its downtown space and was considering a move to an existing building on the outskirts of Eau Claire, Halmstad told the audience.

Everything changed, he said, when he heard that UW-Eau Claire wanted to build an arts center at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers.

“My first question was, ‘What if we were part of it?’” said Halmstad, a music major who co-founded the software company that now employs more than 600 people — including 100+ Blugolds — worldwide. “That was the first time I thought about building a new building for JAMF.”

JAMF’s new offices overlook Phoenix Park, not far from the site of the Confluence Arts Center.

Halmstad also is the owner of the Lismore Hotel, a renovated hotel that includes a bar and a restaurant, and he’s a partner in the recently renovated Oxbow Hotel, also downtown.

He has put his money and his energy into these and other projects because he knows they make Eau Claire a more attractive place for his employees to live, work and play, said Halmstad, noting that a paycheck is just one of the factors that come into play when a business like JAMF is trying to hire and keep talent.

“My hope is that it just continues to grow,” Halmstad said of development downtown. “Our downtown doesn’t look today like it did five years ago, and I hope five years from now it doesn’t look like it does today, in a positive way.

“This is what economic development through the arts looks like. The arts center inspired everything else.”

Meyer, an Eau Claire native who long has been involved in the local music scene, started Volume One 15 years ago as a way to showcase the extensive arts and culture scene in Eau Claire.

He had just moved his magazine into a new downtown building — a space big enough to host events — when the arts center was proposed.

“Up to that point, Volume One had stayed out of politics,” Meyer said, noting that the proposed arts center became political because local and state public dollars were involved. “But we got deeply involved in the Confluence project because it felt like it was a referendum on all that we did and believed in. It was a turning point for us.”

While it is Blugold Real Estate, a subsidiary of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, which took the lead on Confluence Arts Center, the university itself continues to play an important role in supporting both the arts and economic development, the panelists said.

The new Davies Center, which also opened five years ago, provides a much-needed modern venue that can support a variety of music and cultural events.

Jazz Fest — one of the largest jazz festivals in the country — and the university’s many other arts-related events that feature students and faculty also strengthen the local arts community and add to the Chippewa Valley’s reputation as a cultural center.

UW-Eau Claire’s strong music program brought him to the Chippewa Valley, and Eau Claire’s vibrant arts scene keeps him here, said Sean Carey, an active member of the Eau Claire music scene and a member of the Grammy Award-winning band Bon Iver.

While the music graduate has traveled the world with Bon Iver, an experience he describes as a “crazy roller coaster ride,” he always looks forward to coming back to Eau Claire, a place that became home when he was still a UW-Eau Claire student, he said.

“People ask me all the time if I live in New York or California now,” Carey says. “I say, ‘nope, Eau Claire is home.’ Eau Claire is an amazing place to come back to.”

The idea for the Confluence Arts Center became public around the same time that the success of Bon Iver and its frontman Justin Vernon brought international attention to the Chippewa Valley’s music scene.

“We had all these things going on here but we didn’t have a lot of outside attention,” said Meyer, who also is a partner in the newly renovated Oxbow Hotel and The Lakely, a boutique hotel, restaurant and music venue that sits across the street from Volume One. “Bon Iver brought global attention, and when people dug into what we were doing here they realized it wasn’t a one-off. They discovered there is a lot more here.”

One of the many things they discovered is that the Chippewa Valley hosts several major music festivals each summer, each bringing tens of thousands of people and millions of dollars into the area.

The newest festival, Eaux Claires, created by Vernon, a UW-Eau Claire philosophy graduate, has a national following, Carey said, noting that as he performs in venues across the country people often tell him they will be in Eau Claire for the festival.

That festival also is bringing new opportunities for UW-Eau Claire students, said Anderson.

Under his guidance, a team of Blugolds now provide much of the lighting and technical support for Eaux Claires, giving the festival the skilled staff it needs while giving the students real-world experience working for an international music festival.

The university-festival partnership now is a model that is being replicated elsewhere in the country, Anderson said.

Bringing all of the things that are happening on campus and in the community together helps to create that special sense of place that people look for in a community, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said.

It’s that sense of place, he said, that helps attract businesses as well as the talent they need to grow and thrive.

Tom Still, of the Wisconsin Technology Council, said that it is working.

“In this day and age, in a medium-sized city, you need to have some factors that set you apart from others,” Still said. “Music is part of that. You don’t find what Eau Claire has in every city in Wisconsin.”

Photo caption: Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, talks with the panel of experts on music in the Chippewa Valley.