Closing big box stores in Eau Claire and what will happen to those large buildings if they sit vacant for too long was a concern of several candidates running for City Council seats in next month’s elections.
Ten people competing for five at-large seats on the council in the April 2 race spoke Thursday night at a candidate forum in front of a large audience gathered in the commons area at Chippewa Valley Technical College, 620 W. Clairemont Ave.
One of the questions remarked how successful downtown revitalization has been and asked candidates what other parts of Eau Claire or issues deserve the city’s attention next.
“I do feel somewhat that downtown is getting all the attention,” Dale Poynter said, adding that the revitalization has had a positive impact on adjacent neighborhoods as well.
But he was the first on the candidate panel to say the city should — though he’s not sure quite how — address vacancies in the Oakwood Mall area, the slated-for-liquidation Shopko and the vacant Kmart.
“One of the things coming down the road is what’s going to happen to the big box stores that went out of business,” fellow candidate Kirk Ausman said.
Empty stores that sit too long become blighted — their unused parking lots deteriorating and sprouting weeds — and then have a negative impact on properties around them, he said.
Laura Benjamin said the city should speak with local economic development groups about the potential for the old stores and ways to encourage redevelopment at their sites.
“There are ways entrepreneurs can look at Kmart and Shopko and look at new opportunities in those spaces,” she said.
Other candidates pointed to other redevelopment areas already in progress that need the city’s attention, including the Cannery District on the west bank of the Chippewa River.
“That is going to become an area that will need a lot of attention, especially in the area of housing,” said former Councilman David Klinkhammer, who lost his district seat in last April’s election.
In addition to the Cannery District, Klinkhammer said neighborhood revitalization, other downtown projects and the years-away Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex planned for Menomonie Street are in the city’s future.
Kyle Woodman noted those projects but said the city should get back to basics including keeping roads and other public infrastructure in good shape.
“I don’t want to sound too old fashioned, but aside from things we are going to be doing — the Cannery District and the Menomoine Street project — we should focus on the core services of the city,” he said.
Incumbent Councilwoman Kate Beaton called downtown’s revitalization “amazing” for its ability to keep young professionals in Eau Claire and bring more attention to the local arts scene.
The city needs to look at how to spread that success to other parts of Eau Claire, she said, and cited the Cannery District and last fall’s opening of a dog park on the north side as examples of that.
Incumbent Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle spoke about growth in the area’s tourism sector, citing an increase of about $400,000 in hotel room taxes annually.
She mentioned the idea of bringing an event and convention center to Eau Claire, which has long been discussed in the city but hasn’t yet materialized.
A couple of candidates spoke about building stronger ties between the city and business community.
John Lor spoke about the need for quality development in the city that brings competitive wages and benefits that attract workers to replace the retiring baby boomers.
“I believe that the City Council needs to work corroboratively together with private industry and regional economic development,” he said.
Donald Motzing said he wants to be a point-person to work with business groups — if he’s elected to council — with the goal of recruiting new employers to Eau Claire so it can compete with neighboring communities that have lower property taxes.
“We have a heavy burden to overcome — the tax levy — the tax burden on people who want to come to Eau Claire with their business,” he said.
Kate Martin took a more general tack on seeking out future issues for the city to address. Any new issue brought forth by a neighborhood group or others should be heard and prioritized, she said.
Those issues should be weighed though, she said, by how much time they would take city staff to consider and how much money they would mean for taxpayers.
The 10 candidates also fielded questions about the city’s budget process, the local housing supply and downtown traffic and parking.
The top five vote-getters in April 2’s race for at-large City Council seats will get three-year terms in office. Regular council members, which is considered a part-time position, get salaries of $3,000 a year.