Mar 7, 201712:05 PMInside Wisconsin
with Tom Still
Eau Claire proves smaller communities can compete for talent
(page 1 of 2)
When Zach Halmstad looks at the under-construction Confluence Arts Center, the software entrepreneur sees more than a performing arts building.
He sees a big part of the future of downtown Eau Claire.
“This is economic development through the arts,” said Halmstad, who launched Jamf Software in the early 2000s with a couple of friends and has since led its growth to 600 employees, 10,000 customers, and eight offices worldwide.
The story of Jamf and the renaissance of downtown Eau Claire has flowed together, much like the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers in that western Wisconsin city of 64,000 people.
It has come to symbolize what can happen when a city builds on its indigenous strengths to attract and retain the talent needed to compete in a modern economy.
Halmstad was part of a Feb. 28 panel discussion on the UW–Eau Claire campus, where he earned a music degree, along with three other entrepreneurs who represent the city’s rebirth as a tech and arts hub.
They talked about the role of the $45-million Confluence project, which will include a performing arts center, a recently opened student housing center, and more, courtesy of a combination of public and private investment.
In part because Confluence was envisioned five years ago, Eau Claire’s downtown also includes Jamf’s headquarters, the renovated Lismore and Oxbow hotels, other commercial buildings, and an array of shops and restaurants in a part of the city that was almost left for dead.
“My hope is that it continues to grow,” Halmstad said of Eau Claire’s core. “Our downtown doesn’t look today like it did five years ago, and I hope five years from now it doesn’t look like it does today — in a positive way.”
Music is a big reason why the city is hitting the right notes. The Chippewa Valley region hosts five music festivals each summer that attract tens of thousands of visitors from around the world. It is also home to about 20 bands that have won national awards — including Grammy-winning Bon Iver — a number of recording studios and an acclaimed music program at UW–Eau Claire.
Few cities in Wisconsin can lay claim to that kind of music tradition, but other cities can build on their own strengths as places to live, work, and play.
Cool cities are hot cities when it comes to company and job creation. While many people think that’s largely a big-city phenomenon, it has increasingly become true for mid-sized and even small cities.
Wisconsin is a state of mid-sized cities. Only Milwaukee and Madison rank among the nation’s 100 largest cities, but Wisconsin boasts a dozen cities with 50,000 or more people and many more that are large enough to stand out as economic magnets in their counties or regions.