On the morning of April 13, 1995, then-Gov. Tommy Thompson rubbed the head of Eau Claire economic development specialist Mike Schatz in hopes of continuing the community’s lucky streak in luring companies to the Chippewa Valley.
Thompson was in Eau Claire that day to sign a bill providing $3 million in tax credits to Hutchinson Technology Inc., which was planning to open a plant in Gateway West Business Park projected to employ 1,400 workers.
“This is the Blarney Stone,” Thompson said as he rubbed Schatz’s head. “A lot more businesses to come, Mike.”
Indeed, the HTI success, which Schatz pursued for about seven years before hitting the jackpot, was one of the early wins in what has proved to be a long economic development hot streak for the man who has been the primary face behind Eau Claire’s business recruitment and retention efforts for more than three decades.
However, that run will come to an end later this month, as Schatz, 63, told the Leader-Telegram he will retire as economic development administrator for the city and executive director of Downtown Eau Claire Inc. on Sept. 28.
Despite Thompson’s playful words, current and former local officials who have worked with Schatz said the results he has generated for the city took a lot more than luck. They characterized Schatz as a hard worker who has been dedicated to the growth and development of Eau Claire since the city hired him in July 1985.
“Mike worked tirelessly on the advancement of Eau Claire,” said Brian Doudna, the former executive director of the Eau Claire Economic Development Corp. who now serves in the same role for the Wisconsin Economic Development Association. “He is a driver when working on projects, and he can proudly drive across town and know that his efforts will be enjoyed and experienced by the community and its residents for decades to come.”
Schatz takes pride in knowing his fingerprints are on developments all over town, including a history of recruiting almost every business in the Sky Park and Gateway industrial parks.
“That’s a cool feeling,” he said.
Two predicaments Schatz faced early in his tenure in Eau Claire ended up shaping accomplishments that give him the most pride.
First, the city’s former signature industry, Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co., announced in January 1991 that it planned to close its mammoth plant that had been one of Eau Claire’s largest employers for decades. Responding to the widespread depression created by that shocking announcement presented a huge economic challenge for city leaders, and Schatz was at the forefront of those efforts.
“Mike was a key player and instrumental in working with other community leaders to help the community move forward in the wake of the Uniroyal closing,” said City Manager Dale Peters.
Former City Manager Mike Huggins, who was director of community development at the time, recalled that Schatz spent countless hours deploying federal and state aid to create programs to retrain workers, aid dislocated workers and help the community rebound.
Schatz recalled that one of his main goals was to diversify the local economy so it wasn’t so dependent on one giant employer.
The recovery process, while painful for some workers, included the successful recruitment of major employers such as HTI, UnitedHealth Group and a second Nestle plant as well as the creation of numerous small businesses.
“As a whole, I feel we came out of it very, very well,” Schatz said.
Second, Schatz arrived at a time when the last department stores were departing downtown, leaving behind high vacancy rates in a city center increasingly thought of as a crime-ridden area where property owners and developers were unwilling to make investments.
Schatz spent years working to spark a turnaround in downtown. A momentous breakthrough came when Schatz worked with former RCU President Charlie Grossklaus to build a new credit union headquarters near the downtown confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers.
“Fortunately, Mike was passionate, along with Charlie, about getting RCU downtown,” said Bob McCoy, former longtime president of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce. “Mike could see what would happen if that got put there. He envisioned that.”
Schatz worked with RCU to imagine something different for downtown, Huggins said, giving credit in part to the decision by city leaders to make Schatz executive director of both the city’s Redevelopment Authority and Downtown Eau Claire Inc.
“It was a conscious effort to place a priority on bringing his energy and expertise to downtown redevelopment efforts,” Huggins said.
The rest is now history, with the RCU decision leading to the creation of Phoenix Park, hundreds of new apartments in the once-dilapidated North Barstow Street area, a large Jamf office building, dozens of small businesses and, of course, the soon-to-open Pablo Center at the Confluence. Other key developments included major renovations at downtown hotels now known as The Lismore and The Oxbow.
Former City Council President Kerry Kincaid, who resigned in June after 14 years on the council, acknowledged city leaders weren’t sure in the early 2000s if downtown Eau Claire ever would come to life again.
“Mike Schatz was a seminal figure, a cornerstone, in the rebirth of downtown,” Kincaid said. “He understood downtown and understood the needs of business people trying to make a go of it down there.”
Seeing downtown come full circle, when so many naysayers thought it was impossible, is extremely gratifying, Schatz said.
Quality of life
Through it all, Schatz focused on the importance of taking steps to make Eau Claire a place where people want to live. He is quick to credit the City Council for providing the funding and creating the parks, trails, roads and bridges to make that a reality.
He also long has been an advocate of promoting the creative economy — the artists, musicians and writers who call Eau Claire home — to boost the overall economy out of the belief that the availability of the arts also makes a community a more desirable place to live.
The flourishing creative economy and downtown revitalization have generated positive national press for Eau Claire, aroused interest among developers in pursuing projects in the city and inspired more people to move to Eau Claire at a time when worker shortages are forcing companies and communities to compete for talent. The fortuitous timing reinforces Schatz’s contention that successful cities have to be forward thinking enough to stay ahead of the trends so they are offering things at the time people want them.
“Perhaps the neatest thing to me is to see the change in the way community members feel about themselves and what has happened downtown,” Schatz said. “People are proud of their downtown and their city.”
Wins and losses aren’t always clear in economic development, as demonstrated by what Schatz considers one of his greatest accomplishments.
In 1988, he put together a multimillion-dollar incentive package to successfully recruit computer genius Steve Chen to start a company called Supercomputer Systems Inc. in Eau Claire. Chen planned to leave Cray Research in Chippewa Falls to start his own firm in hopes of building the world’s fastest supercomputer.
Eau Claire was competing against Silicon Valley, Boston, Taiwan and other high-profile locations for SSI, so it was huge news when Chen selected a site on the south side of Eau Claire.
Though SSI ended up failing a few years later, Schatz said it was a coup at the time that made Eau Claire leaders realize they could compete for major projects. In addition, many of SSI’s scientists and engineers stayed in the area and applied their expertise to other ventures.
“That started the community on a journey to think about its economic identity in a different way,” Huggins said. “It demonstrated a much different notion of what industrial development could be for the city.”
Schatz’s easygoing personality helped him build relationships and maintain a sterling reputation despite differing opinions about which economic development projects are worth pursuing, local officials said.
“You talk about a person who’s professional, who’s prepared, who’s focused and who really has the best interest of the community in mind but also is just basically a really good guy, that’s Mike Schatz,” said Steve Jahn, executive director of the regional economic development organization Momentum West. “I’ve really enjoyed working with him, and I hate to see him go.”
Huggins called Schatz “incredibly competent and well-regarded in the field of economic development.”
Kincaid referred to him as a confidant and mentor who patiently guided her when she first was assigned to the city’s economic development policy advisory committee.
“I heard from many people in the private sector that he was knowledgeable and really, really, really nice to work with,” she said. “He was a great advocate for our city.”
Stuart Schaefer, president of Commonweal Development, said Schatz often was one of the first people he would approach to discuss the viability of potential development ideas.
“I think his retirement will be a great loss to the city,” Schaefer said. “Mike was a consummate professional who quietly got things done and was relentless in his pursuit of improvement for Eau Claire.”
Peters said Schatz was instrumental in moving the vision of a revitalized downtown forward and credited him for recognizing the importance of quality-of-life factors in economic development.
“His experience and knowledge will be missed,” Peters said, noting that the city will conduct a national search for his replacement.
With downtown in the midst of a dramatic comeback and the city fresh off a record year of $295 million for the value of building permits issued, Schatz said he feels good about turning over the keys to Eau Claire’s economic development engine while it’s on a roll. And he expressed confidence the building blocks are in place to keep the positive momentum going.
Schatz, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, developed a love for Wisconsin and the outdoors early in life with regular visits to his grandparents’ hobby farm in Chetek. But he also brought a big-city drive with him when he arrived in Eau Claire at age 30, prompting him to constantly strive for ways to make the community a better place to live.
As an avid outdoorsman, Schatz always recognized that Eau Claire had a natural lifestyle advantage over many communities because it serves as a regional economic center while also providing easy access to the recreational opportunities of Wisconsin’s north woods.
Schatz also was an early proponent of making use of what he calls “the greatest amenity we’ve ever been given” — the rivers that flow through the city.
“My vision, along with others, was to utilize those natural resources and bring in a lot of quality-of-life amenities,” he said.
In retirement, Schatz plans to stay in the town he has grown to love and enjoy the fruits of his labor.
“It feels so good to be part of a community that has adopted me. It just feels like we’ve worked together to really accomplish something,” Schatz said. “It’s been a fabulous journey.”
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