EAU CLAIRE -- There was uncertainty, anger and sadness when Nathan Berg's parents both lost their jobs at the massive tire plant along the Eau Claire River.
They weren't alone.
When the announcement from Uniroyal-Goodrich came down in early 1991 that the 1.9 million-square-foot plant would be shuttered 18 months later, the end result was the evaporation of 1,358 high-paying jobs and what seemed to be a death-knell for this northwestern Wisconsin city.
Rubber and tires had been a signature industry here and the plant was established just a year after the 1916 founding of UW-Eau Claire.
"It was devastating," said Berg, who was in high school when the news came and is now an award-winning chef. "Neither of my parents knew what they were going to do at the time but they both ended up finding work and moving on."
And collectively, so has this community.
The proof can be seen in the once crumbling downtown. It's where more than $200 million in commercial, private and public projects over the last six years have transformed the city center with new housing, office buildings, restaurants and boutique hotels.
The crown jewel came in September when the $60 million Pablo Center at the Confluence opened its doors. The performing arts and visitors center on the banks of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers includes one of the largest black box theaters in the world in which seating for up to 400 can be rearranged depending on the performance. There's also a sparkling 1,200-seat main performance hall, a recording studio, rehearsal rooms and gallery space, all of it it shared with the university in an effort to stay true of the Pablo Center's mission of "creating regional education opportunities in the performing and visual arts for people of all ages and backgrounds."
Since its opening, the venue has hosted nearly 240 shows and 80,000 guests, some who regularly come from as far away as Minneapolis, Duluth and Madison. Acts this year will include ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro on July 31; Lyle Lovett on Oct. 15; John Hiatt on Oct. 24 and Wynton Marsalis on Dec. 11. Other events for the 2019-20 season include an abridgd version of all 37 plays from William Shakespeare; Cuban musician Alfredo Rodríguez; banjo duo Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn and acclaimed vocalist, composer, and arranger Alicia Olatuja.
"We have a special sauce that’s going on here and that special sauce led to this," Jason Jon Anderson, executive director of the Pablo Center said as he showed off the main performance hall. “As we’re completing our fist year there's a sense that the thing that couldn't be done has kind of broken all the rules, is being highly successful and is delivering a product the city didn't even know it really wanted.”
And the tire plant, that's in the game too. And in a big way.
The sprawling, multi-building complex along the Eau Claire River just north of the downtown has been redeveloped into a massive hub of manufacturing, entrepreneurial businesses and artisans.
The former tire plant, now known as Banbury Place, is home to 500 people who work for 155 companies. They can be as small as individual artists who paint, sculpt or give music lessons while American Phoenix, which employs nearly 200 people and takes up 685,000 square feet on five floors of the former tire plant, is now one of the largest custom rubber mixing facilities in the country. In 1992, American Phoenix purchased equipment from the shuttered tire plant and now supplies rubber to other manufacturers in multiple industries.
Other businesses in the former tire plant include Goldstar Tech, founded in 2007 that occupies about 65,000-square-feet and sells refurbished and overstocked electronics. Banbury is home to a storage company that occupies 370,000-square-feet, a daycare, dog training facility, fire extinguisher company, 300 self-storage units and Dynamic Fabrication & Finishing, a custom metal fabrication company.
James Crosby founded the Sticker Spot in his home about five years ago but for the past four years has rented a 600-square-foot, second floor space. His company specializes in putting stickers and wraps on flat surfaces like cars, motorcycles, windows, skateboards and helmets. He pays $350 a month, which includes all his utilities and is planning to double his space this year for his growing business.
“It’s hard to beat. I love being here. I can’t imagine being anywhere else," Crosby said. “This is like a cool place to have a studio. It’s low overhead and you can kind of work and no one bothers you but if you want to open your door and have people come in you can do that too. There’s a lot of free range here."
Gamble pays off
Named after a mixer used in the manufacturing of rubber, Banbury Place is the brain child of Jack Kaiser and his now late father, Bill Cigan. The duo, who had specialized in redevelopment projects, only at a much smaller scale, purchased the property in 1992 shortly after tire production ceased.
The plant opened in 1917 as the Gillette Safety Tire Co. but was purchased in 1940 by U.S. Rubber. In 1942 and 1943 the plant was used by the U.S. government to make ammunition and at its peak employed about 6,200 workers, 61% of which were women. Tire production resumed in 1944 and by 1947 its 4,400 employees were cranking out 20,000 tires a day. In 1965, the factory was the third largest tire plant in the country but two years later U.S. Rubber's subsidiaries were combined to create Uniroyal. The company merged with B.F. Goodrich in 1986 and then was purchased in 1990 by Michelin Group. A year later, Michelin announced it was closing the plant and consolidating operations at its plants in Indiana and Alabama.
Kaiser, then 35, and Cigan, had toured a former Goodrich tire factory in Akron, Ohio, that in the late 1980s had been converted to incubator space. That tour gave them the confidence to plunge forward with the purchase of the shuttered Eau Claire facility.
“My dad and I pretty much said that if they can do this in Akron, Ohio, we can do this in Eau Claire, Wisconsin," Kaiser, now 62, said. "They were doing what we envisioned, multiple tenants, different types of business and things like that. And that got us over the hump to try this.”
One of the most vibrant and colorful places in the complex is building 13 that had been used as a hardware warehouse and parts facility for the tire plant. The building is now home to several studios for a wide range of artists, a coffee shop, art gallery and Forage, an event space and commercial kitchen that opened in 2016.
A museum that tells the history of the property opened in May on the first floor of the building and will bring more people to the property that at one time was surrounded with fencing topped with barbed wire.
“I think people just don’t know what Banbury is about," said Kristen Dexter, co-owner of Forage. "So we’re thrilled about the museum and I feel like its going to bring people in and help them understand what a jewel this building is and what a jewel the history is.”
Artists find a home
Dick Milheiser, 66, taught high school art in Altoona for more than 30 years and had a studio in his home but when he and his wife downsized to a condominium, the potter, who shows and sells mugs and ceramic chickens at Art Fair Off the Square in Madison each summer, decided to rent space at Banbury.
"I had seen this in bigger cities, where you take an industrial armpit of the city and turn it into a really hip place. It’s a great space," Milheiser said. "First and foremost, Jack (Kaiser) is just a great guy to work with. He wants us to succeed. He wants the building to succeed. He’s friendly. He's accessible. He’s the one that made this all happen.”
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Barb and Andy Shafer moved here from Ohio in 1968 when Andy took an art teaching position at UW-Eau Claire. The couple, now in their mid 70s, have seen the tire factory in its heyday, watched it close and now have a 1,000-square-foot studio in Banbury where they create paintings.
“When that factory closed, everybody thought it was the demise of this community," Barb Shafer said. "Because it was the university and it was Uniroyal and that was it. And people just decided not to let it happen.”
Across town, a similar concept is growing in a former International Truck repair shop. The 33,000-square-foot Artisan Forge Collective was created by Greg Johnson, a metal artist and fabricator, in 2015. The building is home to 51 artists, a coffee shop and hair salon. The idea of the business is to provide studio and gallery space for artists with Johnson's staff marketing and selling the artwork for the artists. He also has plans to more than double the size of his business by adding a larger industrial space and housing that includes studio space for artists.
"The idea is that we’re creating a central cultural art mecca in Eau Claire," Johnson said. "I don’t really compare myself to Banbury. I love those guys down there and they’re trying really hard to do some really cool things. They’ve got some real strengths and it's kind of a neat place. There's some history there but they’ve got their limitations as do we. I work very closely with them. I don’t see them as a threat I see them as an opportunity.”
Jazz, rock, folk continue to draw
But the vibe here is not just about brushstrokes, welds, spinning pottery wheels and sculpting tools. This community of 68,587 people just over 90 miles east of the Twin Cities has a biking culture, craft beer, is known for its horseradish and the U.S. National Kubb Championship in which 128 teams gather to knock over wooden blocks by throwing wooden batons. The city is also home to rivers that promote silent sports such as fishing and kayaking but music is at its heart.
The Eau Claire Jazz Festival, founded in 1967 at the university, is the largest student-run jazz festival in the U.S. and draws performers and spectators from around the world. UW–Eau Claire's Jazz Ensemble is a six-time winner of Down Beat magazine's "Best College Big Band" award and has twice been been nominated for a Grammy. The school's marching band has more than 400 members and is one of the largest marching bands in the country.
The jazz festival is held in April but throughout the year, the city is a hotbed for live music in a wide range of styles, whether its at a park, pub or coffee shop. This is also Justin Vernon's stomping grounds. The Grammy Award winner and leader of the indie folk band Bon Iver teamed with Aaron Dessner of The National in 2015 to create the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival. The two-day event has drawn national acts like Paul Simon, Wilco and Chance the Rapper but is taking this year off with a promise of returning in 2020 with a new location and energy.
"While it will be hard for us to break the chain of momentum and the positive impact the festival has had on our community, we have fresh, clear ideas of how to make it even better," the organizers wrote on the Eaux Claires' website. "But we aren’t just changing locations, we’re bolstering our philosophies. We want to celebrate even more about this real town we call home by extolling and imagining things we haven’t seen or experienced to date."
Vernon is also part of the ownership group of the Oxbow Hotel, a former dilapidated property that has been rebooted as a $4 million, 32-room boutique hotel that includes sleek fixtures, record players in each room and a vinyl library in the lobby. The hotel's restaurant, The Lakely, serves up craft cocktails, hosts live jazz and is where Berg, until recently was the chef with a farm-to-table menu that can include pheasant, whitefish and grass-fed beef. Berg, 43, grew up in Chippewa Falls, was a chef at Harvest in Madison from 2003 to 2005 and later owned for three years the Native Bay restaurant on Lake Wissota, just east of Chippewa Falls.
The Oxbow opened in 2016 but Berg's involvement in the project goes back to 2013. That's when Vernon; Nick Meyer, a retailer, publisher and entrepreneur; and Zach Halmstad, a software developer, purchased the hotel and began renovating the property. The main building was constructed in 1947 for the Edwards Hotel with a motel wing added in 1961. The hotel later was known as the Green Tree Inn but by the time it was purchased for the Oxbow project had become an eyesore that added to the downtown's blight.
"They wanted to showcase the local area and all the cool stuff that was happening and that they knew what was coming down the pipeline," Berg said. "Everything in here has some crazy story usually starting with a local crafts person."
Tables, the bar, stools, front desk, a coffee table in the lobby and the headboards in the hotel rooms were all built by a local woodworker. Custom upholstery work was done locally as was the lighting in the bar and restaurant, Berg said. Signs on each hotel room door and logos on the front windows of the lobby were hand painted by a local artisan. Quotes on walls in the hallway and in rooms are all from local authors.
"It's like every detail is from some local craftsperson who has their stamp on things," Berg said. "They really wanted a place that really showed off Eau Claire."
A similar approach was taken about five years ago by another group led by Halmstad, who in 2002 co-founded Jamf Software. Halmstad and his investors spent an estimated $20 million to convert the former Ramada Inn & Convention Center that closed in 2013 in the city's downtown into the Lismore Hotel, a Double Tree Hotel by Hilton. The property includes 14,000 square feet of meeting space while the former pool on the second floor has been transformed into Dive, a bar with an outdoor deck. The 112-room hotel also includes a coffee shop and a first floor bar and restaurant and is within walking distance of the farmers' market, children's museum, Phoenix Park, the Pablo Center and more than a dozen restaurants.
The Jamf offices are also in Phoenix Park along with the 100,000-square-foot corporate headquarters for Royal Credit Union that was founded in a tiny office at the Uniroyal plant in 1964. The credit union now has 200,000 members, assets of $1.5 billion and is helping to champion more redevelopment in the downtown, like supporting a community effort that encourages building owners to remodel their properties into multiple smaller spaces in an effort to attract smaller businesses.
“So they can bring pop ups in and give businesses an opportunity in spaces that have been empty. It’s just a new concept because that’s who is here” said Vicki Hoehn, the credit union's vice president of engagement. "There’s a lot of young entrepreneurs who are starting up businesses."
But it's Meyer, who began promoting Eau Claire's art scene nearly 20 years ago with his publication, Volume 1, that helped kick-start and further promote the city's art scene.
“With his writing and his art he gave us the confidence boost that we needed as a community because we thought downtown was dead. But he kept saying we can do better," said Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire and the Eau Claire Area Sports Commission. "Five years ago we started getting noticed from the outside world and now we have people who are literally moving here from Austin (Texas) and from Portland (Oregon) and other parts of the country that want an artsy vibe but they can’t get in there. They can’t afford it or they can’t get noticed, but they can here.”
One of those artists is CV Peterson who grew up in Chippewa Falls, went to school in Chicago and now paints, sculpts, does performance art, installations and even uses fungus to create alternative media that replicates Styrofoam.
Peterson, 31, has had a Banbury studio since 2017 and was a toddler when the tire plant closed. Peterson remembers when Phoenix Park in the city's downtown was a gravel parking lot for truckers and many of the downtown buildings were boarded up. Jamf, Royal Credit Union's headquarters and the Pablo Center were unimaginable.
In 2016, Peterson's parents suggested Eau Claire as a studio site instead of Chicago where Peterson lived but could not afford the lease on an art studio.
"It’s really just this growing place. I could never do this in Chicago," Peterson said of Eau Claire. "It's phenomenal. It’s just so much fun and it’s a great community. I wasn't expecting that when I came up here. I wasn't expecting the warm welcome and quick integration of me into the creative community here. I really can’t imagine myself not being a part of it now.”