EAU CLAIRE — Most people would rather forget 2020, Terry Weld said, but he opted Friday to recount Eau Claire’s accomplishments and challenges of the last year with a sense of pride instead.
The City Council president delivered the annual State of the City address alongside interim City Manager David Solberg to an audience of Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce members watching the presentation live via the online platform Perigon.
“We moved forward in 2020, not back,” Weld said.
The duo explained how the coronavirus pandemic affected the city’s operations last year, but services and numerous projects still continued despite the extra work created by COVID-19.
“2020 changed how we did business, but did not stop us from doing business,” Solberg said.
Though access to city facilities has been limited to by appointment, he said services residents rely on including utilities and public transit were not interrupted by the pandemic.
Solberg also counted the city’s administration of last year’s elections — mailing a record number of absentee ballots, creating a drive-in voting operation and safely running polling sites — among 2020’s successes.
The duo also acknowledged the large role that public health officials have played in leading the community’s response to COVID-19, as well as support provided by other government officials, businesses, educators, organizations and other institutions.
“It has been and continues to be a herculean effort,” Weld said.
Other 2020 accomplishments highlighted in the presentation included using Hobbs Ice Center as an emergency homeless shelter for several months, defending excessive taxation lawsuits from big retailers and having one of the state’s best Census participation rates.
The city also began using online software to let contractors and do-it-yourselfers get permits to proceed with home projects during the pandemic.
“We had a big push to provide our services electronically,” Solberg said.
He expects that will continue after the pandemic subsides, seeing the wide variety of payments and city services that people can use through Eau Claire’s website as increased conveniences for residents.
Another result of the pandemic Solberg hopes to see continue afterward is the increased cooperation between different city departments and with the county government. He attributed COVID-19 for fostering an “all hands on deck” mindset among local government employees.
“That’s the biggest thing I’ve seen last year, the coming together,” Weld added.
The presentation did allude to some efforts that were delayed last year due to the pandemic.
The city is looking to continue progress on its strategic plan this year, which Solberg acknowledged was set back in 2020.
“Unfortunately many of the initiatives were not possible due to the safety measures during the pandemic,” he said.
Also held over from 2020 is Eau Claire’s search for a new city manager to replace Dale Peters, who retired in October. The city accepted applications last summer, twice winnowed its choices to a few candidates, but on both occasions saw top finalists withdraw for personal reasons or other job offers. Earlier this month the council decided to pause its manager search and resume sometime in fall with the hope the pandemic will subside by then and make recruiting easier.
Friday’s address also included a preview of what’s to come this year in Eau Claire.
Groundbreakings on the public library renovation and expansion as well as the new downtown Transit Center building are both expected this year, Solberg said. The city will further its efforts to boost affordable housing, give residents a greater say in city budgeting and improve equity, diversity and inclusion. The city government also plans to address growing retail space vacancies and support local businesses hurt by the pandemic, Solberg said.
Friday’s State of the City address also included video clips from several guest speakers to highlight civic engagement, inclusivity, collaborations, diversity, communication and shared values in Eau Claire.
Kevin Rosenberg, president of the Third Ward Neighborhood Association, spoke about ways that homeowners, renters and long-term visitors to Eau Claire can get participate in issues concerning where they live.
“The neighborhood associations are one of the key ways we do that,” he said.
The association he leads continued to meet last year — initially gathering in a classroom prior to the pandemic, then in outdoor areas after COVID-19 hit and finally using online meetings when the weather turned cold.
This year the Third Ward and other associations are planning to collaborate with each other by creating a new group with representatives from neighborhoods throughout Eau Claire.
“In 2021 our neighborhood associations are poised to do even more,” Rosenberg said.