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Confluence Project Supporters: Three young entrepreneurs push downtown Eau Claire to become regional culture center

Posted March 27th, 2014

  • Justin Vernon, Nick Meyer and Zach Halmstad Confluence Supporters

By Julian Emerson

Taken from the Leader Telegram

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Photo by Dan Reiland: Justin Vernon, Nick Meyer and Zach Halmstad don't wear the traditional attire of the extremely successful entrepreneurs they are. They showed up for a recent interview with the Leader-Telegram not in suits and ties but donning the dressed-down clothes they favor - sweatshirts, jeans and work boots.

 

One of them has played and sung all that is Wisconsin, all that is Eau Claire, leaving the region to find himself before returning home, where he discovered who he was, riding the musical energy that burns within him to two Grammy awards and international fame.

Another grew up in Elk Mound and decided to remain in Eau Claire after attending this city's university, founding a magazine that covers the local arts and entertainment scene while doing anything and everything to promote those ventures and convince others to believe in the downtown he envisions.

Yet another started a computer software company in this city where he was born and raised, where he spent time with his family in the downtown Ramada hotel he recently purchased, and where he played jazz music in that hotel's civic center.

Their relaxed clothing style is symbolic of this trio's nontraditional paths to success. Rather than live in the Twin Cities or Chicago or Los Angeles or New York, where opportunities abound, Vernon, Meyer and Halmstad have decided to take a much more unlikely route to accomplish their goals.

They've decided to call Eau Claire home.

And they're not content to just live here (Vernon actually lives east of the city, between Eau Claire and Fall Creek). Motivated by the opportunity to give back to a place they credit with successfully shaping their lives, these three are attempting to pull Eau Claire's downtown by its bootstraps toward the vibrant, bustling city center they envision.

"I feel a duty to do this, that I'm supposed to be helping build downtown, helping build this city," said Vernon, 32, who has earned acclaim as the frontman for Bon Iver and other bands and who has performed and produced award-winning music with the likes of Kanye West and Alicia Keys. "I want to be a part of that, a part of something bigger than myself."

Halmstad, 36, and Meyer, 35, offered similar thoughts about a desire to see Eau Claire continue to evolve. For them and Vernon, much of that evolution is tied to a downtown renaissance.

"You look at the success of the Phoenix Park and what has happened in the North Barstow area, and you see what the rest of this downtown could be like," said Meyer, the editor and publisher of Volume One magazine. "We're getting there. We've started that process. But we've got a long way to go."

Halmstad, who co-founded JAMF Software in 2002, is doing his part to help further that process. Squeezed for space in the company's current Graham Avenue site in the former J.C. Penney building, Halmstad said he considered relocating to the former 3M building on the city's west side before deciding to build a new JAMF building downtown despite a higher price tag.

"Our employees said they want to be downtown," Halmstad said. "There is energy there, and that energy feeds the culture of the workplace."

Downtown involvement

In early January the trio put their money where their mouths are, partnering with Eau Claire Regional Arts Center executive director Ben Richgruber, local businessman Stuart Sandler and others to buy the run-down Green Tree Inn & Suites on Galloway Street.

The developers plan to turn the two-building hotel, across the street from Meyer's The Local Store and Volume One headquarters, into a boutique-style hotel that offers visitors a uniquely Eau Claire experience, drawing on the city's natural beauty, lumbering history and performing arts community.

It's a grand vision, and the investors realize all too well the risk involved. But they decided to take on the costly renovation in large part to signal others to get off the sidelines and make a commitment to the city's center.

"It's possible we could lose money on this," Vernon said. "But we need to do it. We need to show others if you want to make downtown better, you have to get involved."

A few weeks after the Green Tree purchase, Halmstad upped the ante and took on what many view as an even bigger risk - buying the troubled former Ramada Convention Center on South Barstow Street as part of a group of investors named Pablo Properties. The property, a centerpiece of downtown since the mid-1970s and its only marquee hotel, was sold twice at a sheriff's auction last year and has struggled for decades to succeed.

Confluence factor

Key to the success of the two hotels and continued downtown revitalization efforts is the much-discussed Confluence Project, a proposed $77.2 million development at the merger of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers that would include a performing arts center and an adjacent building that would house UW-Eau Claire students and others plus commercial space.

The project, a combined public-private effort by Eau Claire developers Commonweal Development, builders Market & Johnson and the university, has engendered both excitement and concerns since it was proposed in May 2012.

Vernon, Meyer, Halmstad and other backers of the plan cite continued downtown redevelopment, building on Eau Claire's strong performing arts scene and providing the city with more amenities needed to attract people here as reasons to forge ahead with the Confluence.

Confluence opponents have raised concerns about how the project would be paid for, saying it would strap taxpayers with added costs. Others have said they worry how the project would change downtown.

The Confluence has generated growing controversy during the past year, prompting nearly 5,000 city residents to sign a petition, forcing an April 1 city referendum that would require city expenditures for arts-related building projects of $1 million or more to be approved by voters.

In addition, Eau Claire County voters will decide that same day whether to contribute $3.5 million for the Confluence. Maryjo Cohen, CEO of National Presto Industries in Eau Claire and an outspoken Confluence opponent, said while she understands that the arts benefits all of Eau Claire, she's not convinced a performing arts center would significantly improve the city's arts scene. Instead, Cohen said she's concerned the added expense of such a building would not only raise taxes for city residents but could leave some local theater groups out of the mix because of higher rental rates.

"This was the first and only proposal," she said of the Confluence. "Were other ideas solicited for this rare piece of downtown?"

Waiting game

Halmstad, Meyer and Vernon say Eau Claire has played second fiddle to other like-sized Upper Midwest communities, failing to attract the kinds of music performers, theatrical productions and other entertainment events that commonly take the stage in cities such as Appleton, Wausau, La Crosse, Dubuque, Iowa, and elsewhere. Eau Claire residents have watched downtown decay, they say, losing out on jobs and culture and the opportunity to retain many of the city's talented young people who often leave for better opportunities elsewhere.

"There is no good reason to me that kids go to college here and then leave," Vernon said. "I'd like to be a part of making a couple of reasons for them to stay."

Meyer said he's tired of waiting for downtown to become the kind of place it could be. People's reluctance to build the Confluence or other projects downtown because questions remain about its feasibility dooms that part of the city to stagnation and decay, he said.

"I don't know anything that is worthwhile doing that doesn't have a couple of unanswered questions," Meyer said. "If we waited for every question to be answered about everything ever, that is what got downtown to where it is now. That's why downtown is what it is. We have a community that waits."

Other supporters

Vernon, Meyer and Halmstad aren't the only Eau Claire 30-somethings making their mark downtown. Others also are trying to push the city center toward a better, brighter future.

With each event he books at The State Theatre, Richgruber, 35, hopes to add a bit more life and culture to the city. But Richgruber knows the theater's shortcomings as well as anyone. He knows the performances he would like to host but can't because of the lack of space and other amenities at the outdated venue he oversees.

"We do what we can," he said, "but there is a lot we're missing out on because we don't have a top-notch performance center."

Benny Haas, 33, has spent the past decade trying to energize downtown. He opened his Benny HaHa art and dessert store on South Barstow Street 11 years ago. In 2012 he bought Pizza Plus next door along with the adjoining Bottle & Barrel tavern. On Thursday, he showed seven new loft-style apartments on those building's upper floors.

"When we opened the art store we were told 'downtown is dead,' " Haas said. "Now there is growing energy here. Things are happening. But we need the Confluence to happen to really make this ignite."

Sandler's decision to invest in the Green Tree was inspired by a desire to give back. The Ohio native relocated here with his wife, Ann, from the Twin Cities after discovering the city during a visit with Ann's family, who live in Elk Mound. They were struck by the genuine, friendly nature of people here.

"I want to reach back into the community and improve it," said Sandler, a 40-year-old whose business creates retro typeface fonts and photoshop software.

Future hopes

Meyer knows all too well the myriad hurdles facing the Confluence, the uncertainties surrounding a request for $25 million in state money and raising another $10 million to $13 million in private donations to help pay for it. But he remains optimistic it can happen.

"It could be so amazing for this community," he said.

Halmstad envisions a day when the Eau Claire JAMF headquarters under construction is finished, a day when he can sit atop that building's roof enjoying a beer while gazing down upon a concert in Phoenix Park and the Chippewa River, then head to a nearby restaurant for a meal.

"It takes time to realize what makes Eau Claire special," he said. "We can start making that more obvious by the projects that we're working on."

Vernon knows a thing or two about overcoming the odds, about rising up to reach for a greater vision. Seven years ago, having broken up with his girlfriend and his band, he returned from North Carolina to Wisconsin, where he secluded himself in a cabin and poured his angst into a series of soul-bearing songs that became the best-selling, critically acclaimed album "For Emma, Forever Ago" that set him on his path to stardom. He is determined to help downtown experience a similar resurrection.

"There are enough smart people here that we are going to do stuff, and we're going to make stuff better," Vernon said. "We're going to work hard, and we believe in ourselves. That's it. It's just going to happen."