It might have been Wisconsin’s best kept secret.
Eau Claire is a town of 65,000 people in Northwestern Wisconsin. It boasts lush greenery, riverfront bike paths, low crime, a low cost of living and a stable economic base. Recently, the secret has gotten out. The city has gotten buzz for its music festival and development in its downtown.
Eau Claire is most famous nationally for being the hometown of musician Justin Vernon. Vernon’s band Bon Iver went from regional to national fame with a Grammy win in 2012. In 2015, Vernon founded the eclectic Eaux Claires music festival, which packs a punch, culturally and economically, bringing in 20,000 attendees every year.
A scattering of media coverage ensued, starting in 2017 with pieces in usatoday.com, Vice Media and CityLab. These articles focused on the charm of the Eaux Claires festival, outsiders’ impressions of the area and improvements to Eau Claire’s downtown area.
Justin Vernon is a partner in the Oxbow Hotel in downtown Eau Claire, which opened its doors in October 2016. In terms of aesthetics, the hotel has a modern, chic vibe. Based on the pictures, you might think it was located in a bigger city.
The hotel also features a music venue with unique events. One such event is a ‘Lock Inn‘ with a performance featuring Vernon, as well as:
Overnight stay in our award-winning rooms
Six-course dinner crafted by Chef Nathan Berg
Exclusive access to live musical performances by Vernon, Carey, and friends throughout the evening (dinner music, featured music, late night music, and more)
Morning Vinyl Vinyasa yoga session
Tickets go from $300-$500 per person.
On September 22nd, the Pablo Center will open in the center of downtown Eau Claire at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers. The center cost $51 million dollars and will feature visual arts galleries as well as a 1,200 seat theater. It will also serve as classroom space for University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire.
With all the excitement over cultural trends in Eau Claire and development downtown, how much of it is translating into economic and population growth?
A non-profit organization that promotes downtown Eau Claire boasted that the city had the highest population growth of any city in the state outside of Madison. More recent U.S. Census population estimates show other cities–Appleton and Green Bay–have slightly higher growth from 2010-2017.
The above bar graph is ordered by population. Cities on the left tend to have low or negative growth while cities on the right have higher growth. In other words, small cities get even smaller, and big cities tend to get even bigger. Eau Claire is already in the top 7 cities in the state in population, so it only makes sense its growth would be above average.
Plotting growth vs. population, a trend emerges. Cities above the trend (more growth than cities of similar size) tend to be in proximity to even bigger cities. Baraboo, Eau Claire and Menomonie are examples of this. Baraboo is close to Madison. Menomonie and Eau Claire are close to the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Indeed, an article from the Pioneer Press reported that population growth all over Western Wisconsin is high due to proximity with the Twin Cities.
But these population changes are based on estimates from the Census Department. The next census population survey won’t be until 2020. Is there any way to get information using actual yearly surveys?
While census data won’t be available until 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics collects surveys through its Occupational Employment Statistics program every year, for every metro area. Jobs correlate strongly with population, and strong job growth would be a necessary ingredient for durable population growth.
Here we compare job numbers for three similar metro areas–Eau Claire, Wausau and Appleton. They are relatively close in size and region. There doesn’t seem to be much difference in overall job trends. All three have stable growth over time in absolute numbers of jobs.
Normalizing to 2011, we can find the percentage growth. Again, there is not much difference, although we see Eau Claire slightly behind the other two cities.
We can also investigate the median pay for all occupations in each city. It appears that there is no clear evidence of a difference.
It appears that economically at least, Eau Claire is much like its peers in the state of Wisconsin.
The future for Eau Claire
There is no doubt that culturally, the downtown corridor of Eau Claire has seen a lot of development and modernization. The Oxbow and the Pablo Center have attracted a couple of polished gastropubs with long tap lists–the kind you’d be used to seeing in bigger cities.
Full disclosure: I was born and raised in Wausau. Based on photos and reviews, the establishments in downtown Eau Claire do seem to have a bigger city and more modern feel than Wausau. But for the moment, the economic impact isn’t pushing Eau Claire past other cities in the state.
Of course, that could all change. Foxconn, which manufactures for Apple, announced it will open a tech office in downtown Eau Claire and hire 150 new employees. They said talent from the area’s colleges and a supportive business community are reasons they chose Eau Claire. It’s certainly possible that the momentum of the downtown development will attract enough investment to move the needle on the overall economics of the city. But so far, it’s looking like it’s confined to the downtown corridor.
A modest Midwestern success
In an era when so much economic development is being funneled into big cities, the continued growth in cities like Eau Claire is a success. The development in downtown Eau Claire has a buzzy quality, and a sheen of big city happenings about it. For the time being though, Eau Claire is what it’s always been–something ordinary and remarkable at the same time–a quiet, safe, affordable, livable Midwestern town.
Banner photo credit: Ty Johnson. Link