I’ve been reading the platforms of some of the City Council members running for office this spring. They want lasting change for everybody and feel that some people have been left behind during this period of economic growth in Eau Claire. Of course, it’s a campaign so hyperbole abounds. But I’d like to remind everyone of some of the things our city has been doing during the period to make sure our whole community is safe and healthy.
While all this economic development was going on, the City-County Health Department, the Plan Commission, the City Council and citizens too numerous to mention were also hard at work addressing public health, housing and neighborhood redevelopment.
Many of us understood that the success of downtown development depends, in part, on the strength and quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods. To that end, the city created a Neighborhood Revitalization Task Force. Made up of citizens from neighborhood groups, Plan Commission members, City Council representatives and various community organizations, the task force worked for a year to learn about programs in other cities and map out a plan for Eau Claire. The task force produced a report that was approved by the City Council.
That report has informed the activities of some neighborhoods — most dramatically in the Historic Randall Park Neighborhood Association where the number of rental properties compared to owner-occupied houses has gotten out of balance, threatening to destabilize the neighborhood. Affordable home ownership is a major goal for the older neighborhoods, so the association created a nonprofit organization with the goal of improving the housing stock in the neighborhood. Thus, returning modestly priced houses from rentals to owner-occupied homes.
Most of the affordable housing in the city is concentrated in already existing buildings. The task force emphasized the need to keep and upgrade those buildings so that they are healthy and safe for the occupants. As a result, a major update to the housing code was conducted. In order for the update to be a success, a group of stakeholders, including landlords, property managers, renters, city staff and Board of Health members, convened to define the problems and hash out solutions. After that, a draft was presented in several public comment sessions. By the time the updated code was considered by the council, there was considerable buy-in from those affected.
Further, several years ago, the City Council adopted a health chapter to the Comprehensive Plan. One of the many goals is to conduct health impact assessments. The Health Department took the lead in undertaking such an assessment of the Cannery District. The process provided a way to include the adjacent neighborhood in decision-making and to assist the RDA with planning. Two former council members served on an advisory committee as well. I noticed that the developer used the assessment in preparing the recent proposal for the RDA.
So I reject the claim that some of our citizens were left behind during the past several years of economic development and growth. Many of us worked hard on both. But that work takes time, hard work and buy-in from those affected and involved. The result will make a substantial and lasting change.
Mitchell served on the Eau Claire City Council for seven years, from 2011 to 2018.