Is there a lesson to be learned in La Crosse? - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Downtown Decision Day: Is there a lesson for Eau Claire in La Crosse?

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 La Crosse (WQOW)- April 1st is decision day for downtown Eau Claire.  Two years after the Confluence Project was unveiled voters will decide the fate of two referendums. News 18 has been following the project since the very beginning, but now our coverage takes us outside of Eau Claire.

We went to La Crosse for a simple reason, their downtown is more vibrant than ours and we want to know why.  We also want to make it clear, News 18 does not take a position on the Confluence Project.  We don't know whether it's the answer.  What we do know is that something needs to change about Eau Claire's downtown.  It fails to measure up to what other cities have, and it's been that way for many years.  The conversation about change, especially in recent weeks, has soured. It has become a battle, rather than a productive discussion.  You will see how La Crosse created a vision years ago with so many pieces that make a community great. Things like education, business and the arts.  Is their model enough to open the lines of communication in Eau Claire?

You might think the city of La Crosse got its name from the sport. Well, you'd be half right. The city did get its name from a game. Many, many years ago an explorer stumbled upon Native Americans playing a game with sticks, that looked like a cross. La Crosse, as it so happens, is the French word for cross. But there are many other words that define this city...

(This is the second story in a series about Eau Claire's Confluence Project, called "Downtown Decision Day." Find the first by clicking HERE.)

In a city named by sport Veteran's Memorial Stadium proves teamwork is the ticket. The arena was built by brick and stone, but the foundation, was built by collaboration.

"That was the whole challenge," recalls Dyanne Brudos, Vice President of La Crosse's U.S. Bank, who was involved with fundraising for the project. "I mean, people could have sat back, looked at the project and said this is too big."

"The state track meet was actually going to leave town because the facility just wasn't adequate for them anymore,"chimes in Mike Desmond, Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Greater La Crosse Area. He was also heavily involved in helping fundraise for the project. "We said, give us a chance." The original stadium was demolished. A year later a $17 million facility stood in its place, with large thanks to the people who fill its seats today. 90 percent of the project was paid for privately. "If this would have been solely a UW La Crosse project it would have never got done," adds Desmond. 

The partnership also involved the city of La Crosse, nearby Onalaska and the county. "While they may have made up a small percentage of that total $17 million," says Desmond, "their commitment was essential. Because what it showed these private donors is that the city and county is in on this. That they believe in what we're doing, and I think that that's important."

Five people stepped forward to offer gifts of $1 million each. Four of those donors have no connection to UW La Crosse. None are alumni, but they saw the value in a facility that would be used not only by local athletes, but would host community and state wide events.

Functioning as the heart of this community the downtown is a vital organ, steadily pumping revenue into the city's economy. "The value of the property down there is $195 million," says Tim Kabat, the city's mayor. "That has continually grown at a faster rate than the rest of the city."

"We do have about 8 to 10 new businesses looking at moving into downtown and that's exciting," adds Robin Moses with Downtown Mainstreet, Incorporated. But it wasn't always that way. Life-long residents of La Crosse will tell you downtown was a blighted area, for many years.  "Just a short time ago this area was certainly not very attractive," admits Chuck Roth, past president of the La Crosse Performing Arts Center. 

When the Valley View Mall came in, that affected everything. All of the department stores left. "Property values were not increasing. They were stagnant or in some cases they were decreasing," remembers Mayor Kabat. 

Like a defibrillator for downtown, Mayor Kabat says the community came together, "And said if we are going to have a downtown then we need to develop a vision for what it's going to be." 

The result was electric.  Since 1993 over $125 million has been invested downtown. "There's been millions of dollars invested privately and the city has invested millions of dollars publicly," says Kabat. "But, it's because people really want to see a successful downtown is why it flourishes."

Walking along Pearl Street, Moses explains, "You're never going to go back to that same type of downtown that you had before malls started. But what you do have is a unique center and you can create a neighborhood where you're not just relying on retail but you're also relying on a neighborhood where people live, where they eat, where they find their entertainment. And that's why it's so important for a downtown to have an arts district."

Nestled along the banks of the Mississippi, the Weber Center is named for the man who donated the property to make it all possible. "It was the vision really of one individual that started the transformation and now we have this beautiful performing arts center," explains Roth. A walk down the riverbank is a walk down memory lane for Don Weber, he admits, "I had no idea it was going to grow like it did." A short distance away sit the buildings that house Logistics Health Incorporated, a wildly successful venture, that began a tax base boom, downtown.  A decade later, 2,000 employees are inside the trio of riverside buildings: A mix of restaurants, businesses, and to this day LHI's headquarters. "They've taken full advantage of the riverfront which a lot of communities haven't done, or are just now starting to do," observes Moses. 

Don's dream for downtown has now become the norm. "There's tremendous private investment," recognizes Desmond. "You don't just build stand alone things for yourself."

The $8.5 million* Weber Center is the new home of the La Crosse Community Theater and Viterbo University's theater department. "100 percent of the funds that it took to build this building came from donations from private individuals and businesses," says Roth.  

There are 450 seats inside the Weber Center's main theater. In its debut year the Weber Center hosted over 30,000 attendees. At nearly 150 performances. Add it all up... That's unlimited economic potential for downtown La Crosse.  That's true just across the street at The Wine Guyz. "Any time that there's a play or concert going on around here in the evening we're packed. Before and after. That's been phenomenal to see," says owner Dan Nielsen. 

Like ripples in the river a chain of cooperation has begun linking La Crosse. "The rest of the leaders in town, like myself, say 'Wow, if Don's going to do this, we're going to jump in'. I'm not a theater guy or gal, but I can see where this is good for the community," explains Dave Skogen, founder of Festival Foods. "And the other guy says, I'm not a sports nut but that stadium, we need that track meet to come back. The stadium is about to fall apart, the state is going to put a band-aid on it. Let's build a new one. Let's get it done"

Skogen knows a thing or two about community. After all, his grocery stores open their doors each day in cities across the state. And just like the boomerang that brings the customer back, Dave believes we all have a responsibility to give back. "We're born takers. Babies take, children take. Only when we're taught to give do we learn to give. And I can tell you, it's been as much fun giving it back as it was earning it."

"I think other cities can follow it," adds Weber. "I do see it happening in some of the other cities."

"It just takes someone to set the vision," chimes in Brudos. "Create the picture so that you can get other people on board."

"This is not brain surgery, explains Mayor Kabat. "It's a lot of time working with the community to develop that vision and then working everyday to carry it out."

"I believe it's a model for other communities to follow but you know," pauses Skogen, "It comes from right in here," as he points to his heart. "It's got to be genuine. It's got to be that willingness to give."

There was a word we heard a lot as we explored downtown La Crosse -- that's collaboration. The La Crosse Center is another example of that. Named as one of the first big development projects in downtown, to this day it's operational budget is subsidized by the city through a percentage of La Crosse's room tax. The city's finance director, Wayne Delagrave, says taxpayers have been paying the principal and interest on the debt borrowed for capitol projects, which is around $1.2 million right now. That will drop off in 2015, down to about $125 thousand when a big chunk of that debt is paid off.

It's very evident that risk-takers and entrepreneurs played a big part in the re-development of downtown La Crosse, but they did not go it alone. Recently in Eau Claire, a step in that direction: A private investment group bought two hotels, including the former Ramada.  What remains to be seen is how those projects will turn out, and how the rest of downtown will develop.

*Correction: The cost to build the Weber Center, including financing, was $8.5 million. 100 percent of that cost was covered by private donation. We had incorrectly reported that figure to be $20 million.

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