The Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association will move into its new offices next month, but that’s just the start of its plans for the brick building on West Clairemont Avenue.
At about 15,000 square feet, the two-story building will allow the nonprofit to grow its programs and provide space for Hmong family and community events in its spacious lower level.
“This will be the first building that we’ve owned that they can utilize for all their cultural events,” said Vincent Xiong, executive director of the local association.
The organization bought the building at 1320 W. Clairemont Ave. earlier this month and intends to move there by mid-March from its small downtown offices at 423 Wisconsin St.
The staff of eight will then operate the association’s many different programs there, including advocacy services, a food pantry, housing assistance and youth mentoring.
“That building now is too small for our programs,” Xiong said.
For example, the association currently relies on borrowing meeting space from other downtown nonprofits when it wants to bring together the three dozen Eau Claire school district students in its Building Bridges mentorship program. The ECAHMAA’s new offices have plenty of space to do that gathering regularly, plus bring in students from other Chippewa Valley communities that participate in the program. Hmong artifacts also will be put on display in the upstairs for students and other visitors to see and learn from.
A fundraising drive will commence this year to help remodel the downstairs into the cultural center. Currently it’s a maze of small offices previously rented out by multiple tenants.
Xiong laid out his vision of the remodeled space in a tour of the building Monday, foreseeing a large open space that the Hmong community and families can use for cultural celebrations and gatherings.
“There are a lot of cultural events that will be held here,” Xiong said.
The cultural center would fill a niche — larger than a house but less expensive than renting out a big meeting hall — for Hmong families that want to host large celebrations.
Khoua Vang, a second-grade Flynn Elementary School teacher who has taught summer school classes in Hmong language and culture, had heard about the local association’s upcoming move.
She said there is a need for a cultural center that could host many different Hmong celebrations, including one that follows a couple’s first child.
Naming ceremonies involve the wife’s parents choosing to add to their son-in-law’s first name or give him a completely new one to signify his new life as a father, she explained.
“That renaming is a rite of passage,” Vang said. “It’s a very significant thing in the culture.”
Having a place for that ceremony, as well as other cultural gatherings that many relatives and Hmong community members attend would be great, she said.
The cultural center also would be a milestone for the Hmong people’s place in Eau Claire.
“Hmong have historically lacked public space where they can come together and participate in community gatherings,” Kong Pheng Pha, assistant professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies at UW-Eau Claire, said in an email. “Having a space would signal that Hmong belong in this community, and that this space is dedicated for Hmong to participate in the freedom of association as citizens.”
The cultural center also would make Eau Claire more visible as a hub for Hmong activity in the Midwest, he added.
Xiong noted that La Crosse already has a Hmong cultural center but Eau Claire’s would be the second such facility in the state.
The association’s plans for the building include eventually adding a commercial kitchen so people can cook on-site for their events or take classes on making traditional Hmong dishes.
Xiong became the ECAHMAA’s leader last year, and one of his main goals was to get the organization into a bigger building that would allow it to grow. But he did want to make sure that move would be sustainable.
Last fall the association had drawn up plans to move into a different building, but Xiong said the cost to do that turned out to be way too high. Between buying the land and warehouse building at 511 N. Clairemont Ave. and converting it to their needs, the project was estimated at $2.5 million, he said.
Remodeling the current building is expected to take considerably less work, and Commonweal Development Corp. had an asking price of just under $800,000 for 1320 W. Clairemont Ave.