Eau Claire, Wisconsin, often described as “mini Portland” or “mini Austin,” has found its footing within the preserved renaissance of counter-culture living. As the world’s largest producer of horseradish, Eau Claire is spicing things up without sacrificing its wholesome approach to music and arts. From repurposing diseased ash trees into furniture, to hosting the acclaimed Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival, the community always finds a way to recycle and re-invest in itself.
Now it’s pivoting to another market: sports. This year, Eau Claire will host the Beep Baseball World Series, its own Boston Marathon qualifying race and plans to make space for more niche sports that attract sizeable audiences. Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire, is confident that a community that preserves itself can also move forward and develop.
You’ve said that Eau Claire doesn’t do anything “half-baked.” What do you mean by that?
What’s behind that comment is that while we do things that are a little offbeat and entrepreneurial and very creative, there really is this attention to quality in everything we do. Whether it’s a song, a festival or a meal, there’s a lot of pride in producing a quality product—not with arrogance but with humility and consideration for the people consuming what’s produced here.
How does your sports tourism strategy include elements of the community’s interests?
We worked with Jon Schmieder of Huddle Up Group, who does audits of each destination and how they should be approaching sports. He did ours in 2014-2015 and he said to us, “I’ve done so many of these and I’ve never felt compelled in a sports audit to include the music component. There’s this connection with music events incorporating sports and sporting events incorporating music.” It was significant enough that he had to state it in his report and it’s something we’ve stressed ever since.
What separates Eau Claire from other cities in the midwest?
The creative, entrepreneurial spirit we have draws our comparison to Austin and Portland and I think that’s harder to find in the Midwest. We’re a little bit edgy. We’re very much known for our inclusivity. All ideas and all people are welcome here. We like to say, “Come here and your ideas will be embraced and supported.”
What regions does Eau Claire typically attract events from?
As far as geographic promotions, we really do have a grasp in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Twin Cities folk love Eau Claire as their getaway from the big city. Everything from feeling valued here and the open spaces to the lack of traffic. It’s a nice change-up from their day-to-day life. Besides sports and music, we’re really a festival and events city. We do large events really well and every few years, we bring in an air show with the Blue Angels. The country music festivals have been around for 30 years.
What other moves have you all made in regards to sports, like hosting the Beep Baseball World Series this year?
We’ve always been big in group sports here and just looking at our confirmed sports calendar for 2018, we’ve either bid on and recruited or are working with 40 different events. Yes, we do baseball and basketball, but we do have fun with hosting the offbeat sports. We’re hosting the state dartball championship and we’ve been named the “Kubb capital of North America,” so it’s those offbeat sports that really speak to our openness and inclusivity.
It seems that the locals here have a real hands-on approach and sincere loyalty to Eau Claire. What do you owe that to?
I’ve lived here for a while and there were years when you would see the young adults go to university and leave. There’s been a gradual shift in that mentality and a couple of key individuals that decided they didn’t want to see Eau Claire decline. But there’s been a shift in self-esteem here since we are becoming a cool city.
What are three events you’re really proud of hosting?
Definitely at the top of that list is Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival. That has really put us on the map for a younger demographic and wider audience. We now draw people from 49 states and seven countries. When people come here they tend to stay for a week. The Eau Claire marathon is a Boston qualifier and is in its 10th year. We’ve seen double-digit growth in this over the last three years and what we’re trying to do is curate the experience around the race. For the last one, I want to connect to our deep roots in music, specifically jazz, and mention the 52nd Street events within the Eau Claire Jazz Festival. They basically recreate the actual jazz experience in downtown Eau Claire, there are about 15 to 20 venues that play live jazz all night and it’s just a blast.