Huge snow piles courtesy of record snowfall, arctic temperatures and little daylight this time of year are enough to get anyone down, but backers of a new effort hope to improve Eau Claire residents’ perception of winter.
On Thursday morning city residents gathered at L.E. Phillips Senior Center, 1616 Bellinger St., to learn about the endeavor and to solicit opinions about winter activities or amenities they would like to see to beat the winter blahs in Eau Claire.
The initiative, titled Wintermission Eau Claire, seeks to change people’s opinions about winter, from enduring the season known for cold and snow to providing opportunities to appreciate it. It also aims to create means of better connecting people during the winter to boost social connectivity and happiness.
“The idea is really to shift the mentality from winter being something we just get through to something we find ways to enjoy,” said David Simor, project manager with Toronto-based 8 80 Cities, a nonprofit that seeks to facilitate safe, accessible cities for all residents.
Wintermission Eau Claire is backed by a number of local entities, including city government, UW-Eau Claire, Visit Eau Claire and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. The project is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Colleen Goodspeed acknowledged that harsh winter weather, especially the heavy snows and bitter cold that has gripped western Wisconsin in recent weeks, dampens people’s spirits.
“The kind of weather we’ve had lately, it makes it tough,” the 62-year-old Eau Claire resident said, noting snowy and icy walkways make getting from place to place difficult, especially for senior citizens or others with mobility issues.
Others attending the event said they appreciate the effort intended to provide ways to better connect citizens during winter months when they tend to hunker down inside and be more isolated than during warmer times of the year. Some people wrote down ideas for doing so and affixed them to several Wintermission display boards set up at the senior center amid people playing card games.
“Staying connected to others during the winter is more difficult,” 71-year-old Hazel Green of Eau Claire said. “A lot of us come down here to the senior center, but maybe there are other things that can be done for us and the younger people.”
Goodspeed offered up the possibility of walking groups who might take organized trips to various restaurants or other businesses together as one means of boosting togetherness during winter. Doing so would require the clearing of walking routes of snow and ice, she said.
“We have a lot of opportunities in the summer here, but we need more of them in the winter,” Goodspeed said.
Nordic nations such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden have adopted winter city guidelines that include such ideas as prioritizing walkways to facilitate people getting out to spend time with each other. Those places also put on events such as outdoor cafes at which citizens enjoy food and drink while dining outside in winter.
“The idea is we want to be a great place for all four seasons,” said Heather Smith, regional economic development director for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. “Let’s embrace winter. Let’s enjoy it.”
Oftentimes Midwesterners look forward to spring during winter months instead of appreciating the season for what it offers, said Scott Allen, community development director for the city of Eau Claire who is involved with Wintermission.
“We always hear ‘think spring,’ “ Allen said. “Why are we ignoring winter?”
In addition to changing the negative perception of winter, Wintermission aims to connect with people of all socioeconomic groups. Backers of the effort are reaching out specifically to the Eau Claire Hmong and Latino communities.
“What are the barriers we need to address among different groups of people?” Allen said. “That is something we are working to get.”
Creating a more winter-friendly environment can be as simple as creating attractive lighting, he said, noting the city could build on efforts such as the Phoenix Park Bridge that is lit at night.
Wintermission discussions continued Thursday at a meeting at the Altoona Public Library and later during the evening during the Winter After Hours event at Pinehurst Park on the city’s north side. The event serves as an example of the kind of outdoors activity that could enhance residents’ enjoyment of winter here, Allen said, and could become more commonplace in the future.
“Is that the kind of idea we can expand into other parks?” he said. “That is the kind of idea we hope to take a look at.”