ALTOONA — To see how the city’s doing and get ideas for its future, Altoona’s mayor sought the opinions of some of his youngest constituents.
Brendan Pratt showed the results of those listening sessions on Friday morning to 130 local business and community leaders gathered for the annual State of Altoona speech sponsored by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.
Projected onto a large screen in River Prairie Center, attendees saw Pratt ask several groups of school-age students about things they like about living in Altoona and things they’d want to see changed.
Reasons the children and teens gave for enjoying life in Altoona included the city’s parks, its history, a growing selection of businesses, swimming and fishing at Lake Altoona and seeing the community develop while also keeping a small-town feel where people know and care about each other.
Among the things they’d like to see come to Altoona are more small locally-grown businesses, community gardens, improvements to city roads and, somehow, less snow.
After the video of Pratt’s listening sessions with the schoolchildren, city administrator Michael Golat explained why it’s important to look toward younger residents for insights.
“What you want your city to become is learned at a young age,” Golat said. “And those values don’t change.”
A lot of things the children mentioned reflected efforts the city has undertaken in recent years to improve the quality of life for Altoona’s entire population.
Having activities that everyone — including children — can participate in was frequently mentioned as a positive for the city in the listening sessions.
“This was the one message that the kids were absolutely consistent on,” Golat said.
He added that in about the last five years, the city has invested more in quality of life aspects such as parks and places for outdoor festivals.
One such example was Rock’n on the River, a series of free concerts during Wednesday evenings in summer in an amphitheater the city created in its River Prairie development.
Not knowing what to expect in its inaugural year, Golat said the city hoped at least 200 people would show up to the first concert. More than 1,500 showed up the first night and attendance was consistent throughout the summer.
“That was a big surprise last year,” Golat said.
One student in Pratt’s videos said he’d like to see “more houses, more people, more money” coming into Altoona. Golat remarked that child could have a future as a city manager someday.
Also during Friday morning’s speech, Pratt mentioned that the city had sealed a deal to buy a former assisted living facility, which will be used as part of the region’s effort to address its housing shortage.
“(Thursday) night we officially became owners of the building,” Pratt said.
The city purchased 1511 Devney Drive, a former Care Partners facility that has been vacant for three years. Renovations utilizing volunteer labor will convert the building into 24 apartments, which Pratt said could be ready for occupancy in late summer.
Including purchase of the building and materials for the renovation, the city anticipates the project will cost about $935,000.
Lutheran Social Services will manage the apartment building, which will rent half of its units at market rate and the other half will be reserved for income-eligible residents.
Members of JONAH, a local social justice group that has taken up affordable housing as one of its causes, stood alongside Pratt as he spoke about the Devney Drive project.
Susan Wolfgram, co-chairwoman of JONAH’s affordable housing task force, called the project “the first intentional affordable housing partnership in Eau Claire County.”
She added that the project meets many of JONAH’s ideals for affordable housing, including having people of different income levels living together.
JONAH members and C&M Properties & Construction owner Cody Filipczak had roles in creating the Devney Drive project and will help with renovations.
The project was born from meetings of the Chippewa Valley Regional Housing Task Force, an effort that Pratt introduced at last year’s State of Altoona address.