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Early State Street designs include roundabouts

Roundabouts, bike lanes and wider sidewalks are part of early designs for Eau Claire’s biggest road project planned for 2019.

A nearly mile-long stretch of State Street, which passes by UW-Eau Claire and is a popular route to downtown, will get about $2 million in work next year to replace old utilities, repave the deteriorating road and boost safety along the arterial city road.

“We’ve received a lot of comments about improving pedestrian safety and the pedestrian experience along there,” city engineer David Solberg said.

After gatherings with residents of the 3rd Ward and Putnam Heights neighborhoods and the university, the city has made a draft design for the road project that will be presented in a trio of meetings to get more feedback before seeking approval from the City Council.

“It’s by far not a final draft,” Solberg said.

Denizens of Putnam Heights will be the first to see those plans at a 5 p.m. Thursday meeting at St. Mark Lutheran Church, 3307 State St. The 3rd Ward and university will get their look at the designs and chance to comment on them next week.

Three roundabouts and the potential for a fourth are included in the plans for the busier intersections along State Street. They would be at Hamilton and MacArthur avenues, Lexington Boulevard and an option for one at Roosevelt Avenue, which is the most crash-prone intersection along the State Street project.

Traffic lanes on State Street’s hill would be reduced from four lanes to two to allow the addition of a bike lane and wider sidewalk.

“It can handle one lane of traffic in each direction,” Solberg said.

While that hill gets a significant amount of traffic, Solberg said, fewer lanes shouldn’t have a major impact on the flow of vehicles because there are no driveways that would make drivers stop. Turning lanes would be included at intersections to keep traffic on through lanes flowing.

Bicycle lanes would be added to State Street along most of the road project, except for areas where turn lanes would prohibit them, based on the draft designs. Seldom-used curbside parking on some neighborhood blocks of State Street may be eliminated to allow room for bike lanes.

If the draft plans get a good reception, they’d move toward City Council approval in late January. If groups seek changes to the designs, Solberg said, they’d be revised and could go to the council in February with other street projects.

At 5,120 feet long, the road project will start at the Garfield Avenue intersection in the 3rd Ward, go up the State Street hill and end at city limits just south of Hamilton Avenue in the Putnam Heights area.

State Street is one of the main arteries for commuter students and faculty going to UW-Eau Claire’s lower campus, where the majority of academic buildings are located.

“We’ve had conversations with the city, but the university’s not weighed in specifically on anything,” said Mike Rindo, the university’s assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations.

The university has relayed concerns around speeds of vehicles on the road and the multiple crosswalks across State Street used by students and faculty going to their cars or homes on roads near the campus.

“There are some issues around pedestrian safety,” Rindo said.

Jeremy Gragert, a city councilman who represents an aldermanic district that includes State Street, attended a “walking audit” of the corridor in mid-October and then a meeting of the Third Ward Neighborhood Association in November that addressed the project.

“I want to see as many people involved in the discussion as possible,” Gragert said, adding he wants a design the whole community can support.

He said people attending the meetings have kept an open mind to ideas that could help improve safety on the street.

“There’s definitely a big concern in the neighborhood and at the university among drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians that State Street is not an easy or safe road to cross,” said Gragert, an alum of UW-Eau Claire. “Everybody feels there are ways to improve the route.”

The addition of roundabouts and fewer lanes may slow down traffic, Gragert said, but will make it easier for pedestrians to cross the road and for bicyclists to travel through the area.

Putnam Heights Neighborhood Association President Justin Carter drives on State Street daily but knows which other neighborhood streets to use so he can avoid the busy Lexington Avenue intersection at the top of the hill.

That spot is the major concern for the neighborhood, he said in an email.

The neighborhood association hasn’t yet voiced an official stance on the project, but it has advertised the city’s forums and meetings so residents can attend and provide their own feedback, Carter said.

State Street’s condition — namely by Putnam Heights homes — has deteriorated below the average the city wants for its arterial streets, Solberg said, and utilities under the roadway are old and need replacement.

Construction would begin after the university’s spring semester ends and would carry through until November, Solberg said. State Street will be closed during a large part of the project, requiring those who need to get from the city’s south side to downtown to use an alternate route, such as the Harding Avenue hill that was repaved this summer.

Area residents recall thrill of seeing George H.W. Bush

In advance of today’s state funeral for former President George H.W. Bush, several Chippewa Valley residents fondly recalled taking advantage of opportunities to see or meet the nation’s 41st president during campaign stops in the region.

Laurie Forcier, a former Eau Claire County GOP chairwoman and current officer with the state party, said she painted dozens of signs and even helped light torches along railroad tracks in advance of Bush’s Halloween night whistle-stop campaign rally in Chippewa Falls a few days before the 1992 presidential election. Bush chugged into town aboard a campaign train dubbed “Spirit of America.”

“We were one of his last train stops, so it was very special,” Forcier said. “Of all the politics I’ve done in my life, that was such a neat event because it had such an old-fashioned feel. He spoke from the back of a rail car, and it was just very nostalgic.”

The crowd, which Forcier said included White House chief of staff James Baker and press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, packed in close to the railroad line near the Amoco Foam Products Co. plant. The Leader-Telegram reported the event attracted an estimated 18,000 people.

Forcier remembers it was a chilly day and yet the outdoor event attracted a large crowd of people eager to get a glimpse of a sitting president. Bush seemed confident and full of energy in the days before his re-election bid was spoiled by then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Forcier said.

“I don’t think anybody really thought President Bush would lose,” she said. “There was this fabulous, celebratory mood. It was just so, so exciting.”

Shirley Starck of rural Cadott was there that day and also recalled being caught up in the energy of an enthusiastic crowd just three days before the 1992 election.

“People had little horns and confetti, and we were all very excited,” Starck said. “It was the first time I got to see a president, and it was probably the same for a lot of people.”

Her son, Bob Starck Jr., said he brought his three children that day to see a rare presidential appearance in the Chippewa Valley, even though it meant ending trick-or-treating early.

“I got a little push-back at first, but once the president arrived and they understood the importance of it, they were on board,” said Bob Starck Jr., also of rural Cadott.

Both Starcks said they were drawn to Bush because they believed he was a highly principled man who was dedicated to his family and his country.

Harlan Reinders, a former Eau Claire County Republican Party chairman, shared a story of a personal encounter with Bush he believes demonstrated the former president’s ability to relate to everyday people.

After a March 1988 news conference with Bush at Chippewa Valley Regional Airport, Reinders, station manager for WWIB radio at the time, said a White House photographer offered to take pictures of attendees with the then-vice president.

After seeing Bush put his arm around a female reporter for a photo, Reinders recalled remarking, “I suppose if I were a woman you’d put your arm around me too.”

Bush’s response to Reinders — “Come on over here, baby” — prompted a laugh from everyone in the room, Reinders said.

“It shows you that this guy was very unpretentious, like a good old Joe,” Reinders said. “He took his job very seriously, but he smiled a lot, and that was the thing that impressed me. He could even get people to smile at him that were his enemies.”

Indeed, the Washington Post reported this week Bush was known for extending his genuine manner to those with whom he often clashed, including the late Ann Devroy, a UW-Eau Claire journalism graduate who covered the White House for the Post. In his memoir, Bush wrote that when he was president Devroy “gave me heartburn many mornings when I opened the Post.”

But in 1996, when Bush learned that Devroy had cancer, he set aside the bitterness and wrote to her, “I want you to win this battle. I want that same toughness that angered me and frustrated me to a fare-thee-well at times to see you through your fight,” the Post wrote.

Brian Westrate, chairman of the 3rd Congressional District GOP, said one of his earliest political memories involves his mother taking him to the former Ray Wachs Civic Center in downtown Eau Claire for a 1988 campaign appearance by Bush, who then was President Ronald Reagan’s vice president.

“We worked our way to the front of the rope line, and I got to shake his hand,” Westrate said. “I was 10 at the time, and I do remember thinking it was a big deal.”

Westrate said Bush was an “incredibly intelligent, incredibly qualified” president.

“He was perhaps the tail end of maybe the moderate era of politics where there was still a lot of across-the-aisle agreement,” Westrate said, noting that approach continued in retirement when Bush worked alongside Clinton on humanitarian causes important to both of them. “He leaves a legacy as a good man, a good husband and a good father.”

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