Great news: Another national news outlet put a national spotlight on Eau Claire earlier this month.
But after the announcement that Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival won’t be making a return this year, this reporter is left wondering what’s to come for our flourishing city.
In a Chicago Tribune story published Jan. 8., Eau Claire was the second of nine “Best of the Midwest” destinations singled out. Only second to St. Paul among top recommendations for Midwestern vacations, Chicago Tribune travel editor Lori Rackl compares Eau Claire’s vibe, as others have, to a mini Brooklyn, Austin or Portland.
She commends Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon as part owner of the Oxbow Hotel — what she coins “a hotspot for jazz sessions, vinyl-spinning DJs and tasty food” — and the founder of Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival — which has in the past four years brought in 20,000-some people and big acts ranging from Chance the Rapper to Wilco.
Though it’s a relatively brief mention of our town, I’m nonetheless proud we made the list. After all, she’s right — we do have a lot to offer to both out-of-towners and those looking for a new, hip place to move. And, I have to admit that if it weren’t for the sweeping citywide renaissance I was lucky enough to witness while attending UW-Eau Claire, I don’t know if I’d be here now. Eau Claire is a wonderful place to live and work.
But what I’m left wondering is: What will happen to us without Eaux Claires this summer? Though the festival has claimed it will be making a return in 2020, no less in the middle of downtown, I see the potential for a huge impact.
Rackl acknowledges the festival won’t be returning this year while also mentioning “the city has no shortage of other events to keep festivalgoers occupied,” and the “impressive” recently opened Pablo Center at the Confluence.
But there’s a big difference between those other events and a music festival the caliber that Eaux Claires was.
The two-day festival brought in as much as $6.8 million to area businesses. It is partially responsible for the renaissance that has garnered us all this national attention over the last few years. When all those tourists flocked our city, our economy flourished. Our overall music and arts scenes flourished.
Sure, Eaux Claires organizers received backlash last summer for its lineup — both for keeping it a secret and for being what some called lackluster without the presence of at least one or two iconic musicians as in past years such as Paul Simon, Erykah Badu or John Prine.
Regardless, I had faith a 2019 return could’ve made up for last year. I assumed it would still draw thousands to our city. I had faith organizers would — hopefully — learn from their mistake and just release that darn lineup.
But now, we’re going to have to wait — and hope with all our might — that the downtown Eau Claire arrangement will work out.
Back in December, Eau Claire City Council acting President Andrew Werthmann said there hadn’t yet been an official proposal from festival organizers, but the basic idea would be to follow the lead of Eau Claire Jazz Festival’s “52nd Street,” utilizing Pablo Center, Haymarket Plaza, Phoenix Park and other public and private venues in the area.
Whether that’ll pan out, we don’t know. But where would those 20,000 attendees go if it’s downtown? Where would someone like Chance the Rapper play in our downtown area?
There are still many questions that remain. But in the meantime, the biggest question on my mind is this: Will we regress on some of that progress we’ve made?
Back in December, Visit Eau Claire’s executive director Linda John seemed to think taking a “gap year” and bringing back a bigger, stronger festival will be a good strategy in the long run.
“It’s a big event, no question about it. It’s put Eau Claire on the map, not just for those two days but also as a destination for people to visit and live,” John said in December. “But I think we’re going to be just fine. We might have a little dip (in tourism dollars) in 2019. ... But I think it’ll be even better having it in a more centrally located part of our community.”
I hope she’s right. But time will only tell, it seems.