People watch as the Phoenix Park footbridge is lit during the structure's official lighting on Thursday.

A new project designed to celebrate downtown Eau Claire and to bring more visitors there will do just that if the official lighting of the Phoenix Park footbridge Thursday night is any indication. 

That event attracted a large audience as people packed the east and west banks of the Chippewa River the historic bridge connects. Parking spaces anywhere near the site were a much-sought-after commodity and nearby sidewalks were packed with those arriving to take in the lighting ceremony. 

At 7 p.m. white lights rippled from one end of the bridge to the other and back, eliciting a roar of approval from watchers. Those moving lights were just the beginning of a colorful display that illuminated the structure in countless combinations of bright hues that lit the nighttime surroundings.

As I viewed the proceedings I reflected on that site’s past. Once upon a time the area around that bridge was a manufacturing hub. Then those businesses shut down, leaving a dingy, polluted wasteland in their wake. For years that part of downtown was home to dilapidated structures and unsavory activities.

Then came the construction of Phoenix Park, and then new apartment buildings and businesses and a thriving farmers market. People returned to downtown’s north side, not to work factory jobs but to visit, to take in the site’s scenic beauty, and in some cases, to call that area home. 

I recalled standing on the bridge last April, talking with Jason Jon Anderson, assistant director of conferences and event production at UW-Eau Claire. He was part of the effort to light the bridge, a two-year, $400,000 project undertaken by the university, the Rotary Club of Eau Claire and Downtown Eau Claire, Inc. 

Anderson talked about overseeing lighting at music festivals around the world, and about his pride at working on a high-quality lighting project in Eau Claire. On Friday he discussed his nervous state before the lighting show, then his grateful spirit for the many positive responses he received about the project. Being part of a such a project in the city where he works “means a lot to me,” he said. 

“I hope this project inspires people to think bigger and to think more creatively,” Anderson said, noting he is excited to see how the bridge-lighting endeavor evolves over time.