Aaron White, Eau Claire economic development manager and redevelopment authority director, recently shared ideas and the strategies behind Phoenix Park with the RDA Board and residents.
“Early on, people only went downtown to use the post office, it wasn’t a thriving place,” White said. After completing a study of what downtown lacked and what residents wanted to see, the plan to revitalize downtown Eau Claire became a reality. “It’s become a destination for us,” he said. “Phoenix Park is busy all the time and drawing a lot of people to downtown.”
“Comparing Eau Claire’s accomplishments to Watertown’s redevelopment, the RDA can check quite a few boxes already,” said Rob Marchant, RDA chair.
“We will soon open the Town Square, the anchor which will attract residents and visitors to downtown. With the Square located in the heart of downtown, we will have significant foot connectivity to the shops and restaurants along the main and side streets,” Marchant continued. “That, along with a user-friendly approach to navigating and complying with local regulations, will continue to attract further development.” He also said on the plus side of the ledger is the development adjacent to the park, which is the T. Wall mixed use/residential project. It is expected to provide 90-high quality apartments in a prime location with first-floor, retail space.
“Still being developed, the retail space could easily be subdivided to attract emerging micro-retailers wanting smaller storefronts,” Marchant added. “Perhaps those could be a place to incubate food entrepreneurs looking to move from food truck to store front.” Marchant said looking to the near future, the RDA is in the final stages of developing a governance board to oversee Town Square programming and events.
“Given a blank canvas, the board will be encouraged to dream big and not shy away from one-off events to attract diverse audiences to the city center,” Marchant said. “There really is no space like ours in southern Wisconsin. The board will also be tasked with developing a strong brand for the Town Square that reaches beyond Watertown. A brand to pique people’s curiosity and engage them to participate again and again.”
However, Marchant said nothing happens overnight. “Eau Claire is 13 years into their project the RDA has been involved in less than half that time. If nothing else, White’s presentation affirmed our plans and progress,” Marchant said. “As the Town Square project enters completion, the RDA is set to build on this success in hopes of attracting a number of anchor developments, giving people more reasons to visit, shop, and return to the downtown. This is an exciting time for Watertown.”
Alex Allon agreed. Allon, RDA executive drector, said it was clear from White’s presentation that Eau Claire adopted a “placemaking strategy” downtown centered around Phoenix Park.
“They focused on creating a walkable environment where visitors and the community could engage with a mix of businesses. Although there is a difference in population, it was interesting to hear the similarities between the downtown Watertown and downtown Eau Claire,” Allon said. “Listening to the stages they’ve gone through as they’ve developed is validating for the approach that the Watertown Redevelopment Authority is taking. I feel even more confident that we are on the right path towards breathing new life into downtown while staying true to Watertown’s roots.”