From the time developers first talked six years ago about building a massive project at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers that would be the centerpiece of Eau Claire’s downtown revitalization efforts, a key component was a restaurant offering spectacular river views.
The restaurant, which was to include a patio with outside dining, was proposed for the retail space on the ground floor of what became Haymarket Landing, a six-story multiuse building that began housing UW-Eau Claire students in August 2016 in apartments on the upper five floors.
But two years later, with the Pablo Center at the Confluence — the community performing arts center that is half of the Confluence Project — about to open next month, the space once designated for the long-awaited riverside restaurant on developer drawings is now committed to the controversial Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn Technology Group for a planned innovation center. And some people aren’t happy about the change.
“There has been a lot of overwhelmingly negative feedback about it,” City Council acting President Andrew Werthmann said. “I think that’s because we as a community were investing in a certain vision for downtown and that space, and this is not in keeping with that vision.”
While some complaints have focused on Foxconn coming to Eau Claire — the company is at the center of political fights about its environmental and human rights records and the merits of more than $4 billion in Wisconsin taxpayer subsidies pledged to support the development of its planned giant manufacturing facility near Racine — others have simply questioned devoting to office space 15,000 square feet overlooking the Eau Claire River and the public plaza being created between Haymarket Landing and the Pablo Center, Werthmann said.
With the Pablo Center scheduled to open Sept. 22 and Haymarket Plaza — the open space between the two buildings — yet this fall, the vision for downtown is finally coming to fruition.
“The building out of our downtown is in sight, and now this,” an obviously disappointed Werthmann said in reference to Foxconn moving into Haymarket Landing.
Stuart Schaefer, president of Commonweal Development Corp., said the reason for the change in plans is simple: No entrepreneur ever stepped forward to create a restaurant in the Haymarket site. Commonweal and Market & Johnson are partners in Marcom Investments, which owns the ground floor of the Haymarket Landing building. The $36 million building was mostly funded by private partners but also received $5.9 million from the city through a tax increment financing district.
“After four years of trying to lease space and using a lot of different methods of leasing from the internet to trade organizations, we’ve struggled to bring new restaurants to downtown Eau Claire,” Schaefer said. “We’ve had promising prospects but haven’t been able to get them in the project.”
‘Huge leap forward’
Schaefer acknowledged that all the construction activity in the area — Pablo Center, Haymarket Plaza and Graham Avenue — presented a hurdle for potential tenants, although the building has attracted two fitness centers.
“We’re ready to take a huge leap forward as the street and new sidewalk open and there are exciting new things to do down there,” he said.
But at this point that progress won’t include a restaurant at one of the most desirable addresses in downtown Eau Claire. Foxconn is slated to occupy nearly half the ground floor of Haymarket Landing — located at Eau Claire and South Barstow streets — including the entire west end along Eau Claire Street.
“At some point it’s important to get people in your buildings and keep them occupied,” Schaefer said.
With that in mind, Schaefer said Marcom is pleased to have a tenant lined up.
Foxconn officials announced in a July 16 news conference that they plan to hire 150 people to work in Eau Claire on developing and testing new technology beginning next year in two downtown buildings. The company indicated it planned to close deals this year to buy the space in Haymarket Landing at 400 Eau Claire St. and to purchase the entire six-story former Wells Fargo building at 204 E. Grand Ave. The new facilities are to be named Foxconn Place Chippewa Valley.
Mike Schatz, the city’s economic development administrator and executive director of the promotions group Downtown Eau Claire Inc., said local government has no control over what tenants occupy space in a building owned by the private sector.
“It obviously was in our opinion a great spot for a restaurant,” Schatz said. “But every owner of a building has to make their own decision.”
Schatz expressed optimism that Eau Claire eventually will get a restaurant on the river somewhere downtown.
“There is still riverfront available for that,” he said. “I still think it makes sense, and somebody will do it someday.”
In the meantime, it’s understandable that a landlord would want someone to move into Haymarket Landing to help pay the bills, said David Minor, president of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.
Looking beyond all the politically charged rhetoric about Foxconn, Minor pointed to positives of the Foxconn announcement — that the company is not asking for any government incentives and intends to recruit 150 employees at a time when the region is seeking to attract more residents to fill available jobs. Those new workers and their families should provide a boost to other downtown and community businesses, he added.
Former Councilwoman Kathy Mitchell, who was on the council when it was approving plans for the Confluence Project buildings and the city’s investment in supporting infrastructure, said she recalls discussion of a restaurant in that location, including how much space would be necessary between an outdoor dining area and a recreation trail along the Eau Claire River, but said the main point of emphasis was that it be reserved for commercial space.
However, Mitchell acknowledged, “I would be kind of disappointed if a restaurant didn’t go in there to take advantage of the location along the river and the trail.”
Schaefer said it’s still possible that something could work out and noted that just because Foxconn has committed to that space doesn’t mean it will be a “forever use.”
“We’ve still got space in that building and would actively welcome anybody interested in doing a restaurant down there,” Schaefer said, declining to discuss more details about the Foxconn deal because he indicated he had signed a nondisclosure agreement.
Minor said it’s entirely possible that the increased foot traffic expected to result from the Confluence Project will inspire entrepreneurs to start new restaurants or other businesses downtown.
“You get people thinking about what could happen once you see the infrastructure changing,” he said.
Still, Next Step Energy’s Joe Maurer, who designed the Phoenix Gardens Community Pavilion along Forest Street and has been involved in discussions about shaping downtown Eau Claire, expressed reservations about Foxconn occupying the prime site in the building created through a public-private partnership.
It’s important to have compatible usage next door to a public space such as the plaza, which will be connected by pedestrian bridge to Phoenix Park, said Maurer, who once worked in one of the buildings torn down to make way for Haymarket Plaza.
“You want to activate these public spaces,” he said. “It’s been our goal to make better use of the rivers, and I wonder if this is a missed opportunity.”
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