The second highest number of bike and recreation trails in the state, the second strongest art sculpture tour in the country (featuring 53 pieces) and a strong music festival history — all are just a few of the things that Eau Claire City Manager Dale Peters said are leading to the increasing population growth in Eau Claire.
“Those things lead to our high quality of living that comes at a relatively low cost, which is attracting people to this region, and retaining them,” Peters said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Eau Claire added 361 residents from 2016 to 2017, a .5 percent growth rate, surpassing the average state growth rate of .4 percent. This is one reason why the U.S. Census Bureau has also concluded that Eau Claire County is the ninth fastest growing county in Wisconsin out of a total of 72.
Peters said that having a strong emphasis and presence in the cultural arts and year-round recreation opportunities in Eau Claire has been a team process.
“This area has a culture of working cooperatively and collaboratively as a micro-region,” Peters said. “It has allowed us to do many things that other communities just can’t do.”
In terms of recreation, Peters said Eau Claire’s natural beauty makes a big difference. Phoenix Park, Carson Park and Mount Simon park offer swimming, biking and hiking options. The Chippewa River streams right through the middle of town, presenting fishing and boating opportunities as well.
Outside of Eau Claire’s natural spaces, Hobbs Ice Arena — home to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s hockey teams — hosts many sporting events year round. Throughout the entire year, there are both organized or unorganized sport activities to choose from. Peters said some of the most popular are hockey, baseball and softball.
Supplementing Eau Claire’s culture and recreation, but not getting as much credit for its contributions to the city, is the business sector.
City Councilmember Kate Beaton said both the technological industry and the medical industry have played the biggest role in this growth. One major player in the tech field has been JAMF Software, responsible for helping people with mobile device management of Apple products.
In the medical field, hospitals and clinics are sprawled all throughout Eau Claire, including Sacred Heart, the Mayo Clinic, Oakleaf Surgical Hospital, and the new Marshfield Clinic. Beaton said Eau Claire is now referred to as the “Rochester of Wisconsin,” a reference to Rochester, Minnesota, the birthplace of Mayo Clinic Healthcare Organization.
“We are an urban center in a mainly rural area,” Beaton said. “We provide a lot of amenities that don’t exist in a 100-mile radius.”
Layton Anderson, the Chief Human Resources Officer for HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals in Chippewa Falls, also credited Eau Claire’s geographical position for the growth of what has become a medical hub for the region. Anderson said that being situated between La Crosse and Duluth makes Eau Claire a focal point for medical care. Anderson, like many others, also attested to the high-quality living of the city.
“It’s really easy to recruit candidates to come here,” Anderson said. “They look at what the community has to offer for, maybe, a spouse. They see a high-tech community thanks to JAMF, a great school system, and it leads many to come to Eau Claire.”
Josh Fedie, the JAMF-Eau Claire Office Coordinator, echoed positive remarks about Eau Claire that have led to its growth, as well as JAMF’s.
“It’s a safe, comfortable community which is a big deal to people with all the crime and chaos in the world,” Fedie said. “It’s also college-based with a group of diverse, upcoming people who are growing alongside the community.
Fedie said that JAMF Eau Claire already supports 250 workers from the area, and they are looking to add on another 50 jobs by the end of the fiscal year.
Though the city has experienced growth, community leaders have kept in mind that getting to this point wasn’t easy and that there continues to be challenges they are battling. Beaton said the growth trend of the city and county are fairly new, as Eau Claire had seen some hard times in the recent past.
“We had the closure of the tire company in Banbury Place, which resulted in a lot of lost jobs,” Beaton said. “It’s hard to find someone from the area who wasn’t tied to that. It’s taken decades to build our community back up.”
That build up of the community is now in full force, which has caused new problems the city has to manage. Peters said that with all the people coming to town, there is an increased need of services such as police, fire and EMS, as well as cleaned streets and maintained parks. Peters noted that these things are getting increasingly difficult to deal with under current state rules.
“It’s hard for a city to have their revenue increased at this rate of inflation,” Peters said. “We have record growth, and the revenue isn’t keeping up with that rate of inflation. This won’t change until the state changes the way we are funded.”
Beaton highlighted another area of conflict for the city, which has been housing. She said there is a rapidly increasing housing cost, which isn’t keeping up with the city’s average wages.
She also said that there is simply not enough homes, which also drives up the cost. Beaton said that according to the Atlas Threshold, the city of Eau Claire realized that about 46 percent of their civilians are “housing insecure.” Housing insecure is known as a lack of security in an individual shelter due to the result of high housing costs relative to income, poor housing quality and overcrowding, amongst other things.
Despite these continuous population growth battles, the city and county have continued to thrive and develop.
Peters said there are three new downtown projects up for consideration right now. Beaton said the city has long been invested in building a place where people want to come and stay, and that will remain their top priority. If all things go as planned, Eau Claire will continue to see this growth trend making positive impacts on the region.
“This has been about us as a region working together,” Peters said. “A diverse mix of people, working side-by-side to help us stand apart from other regions in the state.”