EAU CLAIRE — Residential construction continues to prosper and industrial businesses are seeking out spaces in the Eau Claire area, but the retail sector is generally aiming smaller, according to local development experts who gave an overview of local projects.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in temporary slowdowns with some current construction projects and others in the planning stages, but those who spoke during a Friday morning Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce online panel said interest persists in new businesses and people looking to move to the community.
“We’ve seen that despite the pandemic, a lot of economic development projects are continuing to go forward,” said Scott Rogers, the chamber’s governmental affairs director.
Cody Filipczak, co-owner of C&M Home Builders & Real Estate, said the pandemic and unrest in larger cities has even been a factor in people he’s worked with that are moving to the Chippewa Valley.
“I think it’s created more of a need for people to get out of the (Twin Cities) and get over here,” he said.
About a call each week comes in to his business from Minneapolis-area residents who have a prior connection to the Eau Claire area and want to move back here, Filipczak said.
Some of C&M’s projects are in Altoona, which is continuing its growth streak and could even beat last year’s high tally of new homes.
”We’re on task to have a record year here,” Altoona City Manager Mike Golat said.
The city had issued 176 dwelling permits for 2020 as of last week, he said, which is just five short of the record set last year.
In addition to new single-family and twin homes, the area is also seeing a new crop of apartment buildings.
Tyler Warner, managing member of W Capital Group, said the pandemic did cause some delays for construction of The Current, new apartments being built in Eau Claire’s Cannery District.
“We had to shut down the job site a few times because of COVID,” he said, noting that some subcontractors had employees affected by the virus.
But The Current’s first building, which has 71 market-rate apartments, is going to open in a couple of weeks and has tenants already lined up for its units.
”We have a very wide range of signed leases in this building,” Warner said, citing doctors, nurses, professors, graduate students and others signed up to live there.
The Current’s second building, which will have 43 apartments, the majority of which will be priced for people making well under Eau Claire County’s median income, is planned to begin construction in spring.
Andante, a five-story apartment building slated for downtown land along the Eau Claire River that’s currently a city parking lot, is eager to begin construction even sooner.
Joy Hannemann, a founder of Iowa-based Merge Urban Development Group, said the company would like to begin building by the end of this year or early 2021.
Approved by the city in August, the project will have 76 apartments, but also some ground floor retail space that can be rented out as small shops.
Aaron White, Eau Claire’s economic development manager, noted the continued interest in residential construction during the pandemic, but some other kinds of projects have slowed down somewhat.
Projects in their early planning phases were put on hold in some cases, he said, and their developers have been waiting to see how the pandemic and next month’s election will impact their target markets.
“They’re looking at maybe first quarter next year to pick those projects up again,” he said.
One of the pending projects is a building with a restaurant and office space planned for land next to the city’s parking ramp on the North Barstow Street area. The restaurant portion of that project has slowed down as its developer is waiting to see how the coronavirus pandemic could have long-term impacts on the industry and how dining spaces are designed, White said.
The retail sector, which has been facing increasing pressure from e-commerce, also is experiencing changes.
“Retail is challenging in this environment,” White said. “Other than smaller, locally owned mom-and-pop type shops, we’re not seeing a huge interest in big box retail.”
The small shops continue to occupy small downtown storefronts, but White said large stores are a harder sell these days. Included in that is finding a tenant to fill the empty Shopko store on Eau Claire’s southwest side. White sees the best option for that spot is to raze the site and build something new.
“We’d love to see somebody else come in, clear the site and redevelop it,” he said.
An exception to the downward big box trend is plans for a Hy-Vee grocery store to replace the defunct Kmart on East Clairemont Avenue.
Industrial and manufacturing businesses continue to show interest in Eau Claire, White said. Multiple companies are setting their sights on the Sky Park Industrial Center, a business park on the city’s southwest side. A few businesses have options on land there, White said, and a building that Phillips-Medisize will soon vacate is not expected to be empty for long as clients are already looking over the facility.
”I hope to see a very busy first quarter next year,” he said.