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Eau Claire redevelopment projects proceeding at slower pace due to COVID-19

Groundbreakings planned this spring are postponed and developers are pondering their financial situation before locking into deals, but projects planned for two areas in Eau Claire are still on track, according to a city official.

Eau Claire’s Redevelopment Authority met Wednesday morning via videoconference — the group’s first gathering in three months — to catch up on the status of activity in the Cannery District and North Barstow Street area.

Among those planned projects is the new Children’s Museum of Eau Claire building along with private developer Monarch Ventures’ anticipated restaurant and office building on an empty lot along North Barstow Street, adjacent to a city parking ramp.

”Both of them indicated that with what’s going on it will likely delay any groundbreaking,” said Aaron White, the city’s economic development manager.

Monarch Ventures had originally hoped to start construction this spring, but White said the company has instead gotten a 180-day extension on its memorandum of understanding — the document that precedes a development and purchase agreement with the RDA.

The company needs time to evaluate the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on its other businesses, White said, but has told the city it still is interested in moving forward with the Eau Claire project.

The local museum also continues to make progress on its plans and recently approved final designs for the new building.

Also next to the North Barstow parking ramp is a large lot the RDA continues to market for developers after previous proposals for buildings there ultimately proved financially unfeasible due to construction cost issues.

Creating underground parking had been a requirement for building there, but after some developers stated that makes it too costly, the RDA has hired a local firm to explore the potential for another option.

Architecture and engineering firm Ayres Associates recently was named to crunch numbers and create renderings showing buildings on the block that would encircle a parking structure. The building concept is known as a “Texas doughnut” based on its shape and popularity in southern metro areas, but it is not often seen in the Midwest. The RDA is interested in exploring the idea as it would fit the goal of reducing the amount of surface parking lots to maximize downtown’s development potential.

When the RDA approved a $10,000 budget for hiring a consultant on Feb. 19, the group hoped to get a report back in spring. But the coronavirus slowed down the process of selecting a firm, White said, and a deadline for the work has not yet been set.

Cannery District progresses

Work redeveloping land continues in the city’s Cannery District, which is located on the west bank of the Chippewa River north of West Madison Street.

• Demolition crews from No Mercy Excavating have begun tearing down three old buildings previously bought by the RDA, clearing land for new development. The small gray cinder block building where local brewery The Brewing Projekt began before moving to its new, much larger headquarters is now down and separated into piles of rubble. Demolition has begun on two vacant office buildings nearby at the northwest corner of Platt Street and North Oxford Avenue and that work is expected to finish early next week.

• Construction continues on Cannery Trail Residences, an apartment complex being built on a block just south of the Eau Claire Children’s Theater and north of a Kwik Trip convenience store. Developer W Capital Group learned late last month that $483,430 in low-income housing tax credits were awarded to the project, ensuring that one of its buildings will primarily be apartments priced so people making below the county median income can afford to rent there.

• On the northern edge of the Cannery District, a vacant block of city-owned land along Cedar Street is still in discussions to become the site of future housing. Locally based GRIP Development Corp. remains interested in building affordable housing on the land and is in continuing talks with the RDA, White said.

Biden calls for help for rural economy

With more than 90,000 Americans dead, over 36 million suddenly jobless and the economy reeling, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt by everyone, but “the pain has been especially profound in rural America,” former Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday in a virtual roundtable with western Wisconsin officials.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee called for improved trade policies, broadband expansion and more support for small businesses and farmers to help rural communities recover from the economic consequences of the coronavirus emergency.

“Rural communities power our nation. They feed our bodies. They fuel our engines. They’re the stewards that protect our lands, and we cannot sustain an economy that exacts value from them without ever sharing in the rewards,” said Biden, who co-hosted the panel with U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse. “The only way we’re going to come through this crisis and rebuild our economy is by ensuring that we leave no community behind.”

Biden and Kind both took the opportunity to criticize GOP President Donald Trump for a lack of federal leadership in the fight against the health and economic crises.

“A lot of this could have been prevented,” Biden said, arguing that Trump ignored early warnings about the seriousness of the threat. “COVID-19 is not his fault, but the failure to respond quickly is a big problem.”

Biden said the president needs to be honest with the American people, follow the guidance of scientists studying the issue, marshal federal resources to boost testing capacity in communities across the country and immediately start planning a strategy to respond to a potential second wave of the virus.

Kind, a 12-term incumbent who faces challenges from the right and left this year, said the health crisis serves as a reminder that the most fundamental role of government is to keep citizens safe and healthy.

“As we emerge from the pandemic ... we will have to reassess our national security priorities,” Kind said. “It’s going to have to be more than just protecting people from bullets and bombs. Now we’re going to have to protect them from bugs.”

Kind also said people need stronger leadership from the White House.

“It’s mind-boggling that five months after the virus landed on our shores we still lack a national plan and vision to come out of this crisis together,” he said. “The people back home don’t see this as a red or a blue issue. They see it as a red, white and blue issue. We need to stay united.”

Andrew Hitt, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, released a statement Wednesday characterizing the session as Biden pandering to Wisconsinites.

“Wisconsin needs President Trump’s continued leadership in the White House to get us through the COVID-19 pandemic and back to prosperity,” Hitt said. “Joe Biden’s increasingly far-left agenda couldn’t be more wrong for Wisconsin. From Biden’s position on supporting the Green New Deal that would devastate Wisconsin farmers and manufacturers to his plans to launch a government takeover of healthcare that would force millions off their plans, Biden proves that he is out-of-touch with the people of Wisconsin.”

Biden and Kind heard from three rural leaders — Trempealeau County economic development and tourism coordinator Rob Grover, Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden of Westby and Mari Freiberg, CEO of Scenic Bluffs Community Health Centers in Cashton — about challenges faced by residents and businesses in western Wisconsin.

Grover, a Galesville farmer, talked about the economic impact of bars, restaurants and small businesses shutting down in mid-March when Gov. Tony Evers imposed a safer-at-home order to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“When those places closed overnight basically, we had business people losing their income and we had their workers losing their income as well,” Grover said, adding that job loss also led to many people losing health insurance. “It was incredibly devastating.”

With Wisconsin beginning to reopen, Grover said small-business owners are uneasy about the future and looking for federal guidance on how to best protect employees and customers.

“Businesses can’t survive if they can’t be open, but when we don’t have guidance about how to do it safely it’s a real mess for everyone,” he said.

Freiberg said the Scenic Bluffs health care facilities managed to launch a telemedicine program in a few weeks and have been deploying it to provide mental health services for many residents struggling with the stress of the pandemic.

But that only works for clients who have access to reliable internet — something that’s not the case for some rural Wisconsin residents, Freiberg said, backing Biden’s call for more investment in rural broadband.

Freiberg lamented the absence of a national plan for COVID-19 testing and the lack of needed testing supplies and personal protective equipment at some medical facilities.

“It feels like unforced errors. It’s preventable, and that is tragic,” she said. “When you hear conversations about health care workers putting their lives on the line (without proper PPE) and going in as heroic battlers, it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Von Ruden painted a bleak picture of Wisconsin agriculture by telling the former vice president that 10% of Wisconsin farmers went out of business last year and another 8% in 2018 and describing demoralizing scenarios in which farmers are dumping milk because of low prices and euthanizing livestock because of the lack of access to meat-processing plants hit by COVID-19 outbreaks.

Von Ruden also reiterated Biden’s allegation that the tariffs sparked by Trump’s trade war hurt farmers in Wisconsin, which leads the nation in farm bankruptcies, before the virus struck.

Biden, a former senator from Delaware, labeled this “an incredibly anxious moment for our nation” and insisted that helping rural America recover is key to a national recovery.

“We have to keep Main Street open,” Biden said, “because it’s the heart and soul that makes everything beat in all these small communities in my state and yours.”

Most hit by coronavirus in Eau Claire County? Young adults.

Young adults between 20 and 29 years old make up the largest percentage of coronavirus cases in Eau Claire County. They are followed closely by people aged 40 to 49, according to Eau Claire City-County Health Department data.

The county has identified five new cases since Tuesday. Its total sits at 85 cases, said Lieske Giese, Health Department director.

Of the 78 cases currently tracked on the Health Department’s website, covid19eauclaire.org, 50 are in adults between 20 and 49.

“That may surprise some people,” Giese said. “We have a younger population here … the majority of our cases are in that adult age group.”

The county has released ages for 78 of 85 total cases, as of Wednesday:

  • Age 0 to 19: 5 cases
  • Age 20 to 29: 23 cases
  • Age 30 to 39: 12 cases
  • Age 40 to 49: 15 cases
  • Age 50 to 59: 10 cases
  • Age 60 or above: 13 cases

Social distancing has probably helped keep down the number of elderly county residents with the virus, Giese said.

Eau Claire County cases are split nearly in half between men and women: 40 cases in men, 37 in women.

The Health Department continues to have two open health investigations: One into a work site “where disease was spread because physical distance wasn’t maintained,” Giese said. The other is a congregate facility with unrelated people living in the same space.

Two or more cases at a work site or a group housing facility will spur a health investigation, according to the state Department of Health Services.

The county has tested 4,008 people for the virus, and has 150 tests still pending as of Wednesday. Of its 85 cases, 58 people have been released from isolation.

Statewide pattern

The county’s trend of high case numbers in young people mirrors the state’s. More cases have also been found in younger people statewide: 52% of all Wisconsin cases have been found in adults aged 20 to 49, according to DHS data.

But statewide data suggests the virus is far more dangerous for the elderly, who are hospitalized and receive intensive care at a significantly higher rate than younger adults with the virus.

Fifty percent of the state’s deaths are in people 80 and older.

The state is reporting 528 new cases of the virus as of Wednesday, for a total of 13,413. Statewide, 2,161 with the virus have been hospitalized, about 16% of total cases.

Fourteen new deaths were recorded since Tuesday. In total, 481 Wisconsin residents have died of the virus, according to the state DHS.

Eau Claire County’s COVID-19 hotline is 715-831-7425.