2024 Winter/Spring EC Life

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Welcome to e EC Life, an Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce publication, where you the reader are able to dive into a variety of community driven stories that feature local businesses, explore the vitality of the area and share the overall sense of home that Eau Claire provides.

“ “

Curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. I have shared this quote from Walt Disney several times over the past six years.

We, the Eau Claire Area Chamber, continue down new paths and this publication, “ e EC Life” is another new path we’ve set out on.

is publication will help us tell OUR story to those who live here but also to those who are thinking about calling Eau Claire home.

ank you to all of our readers.

All rights reserved. No part of this guide may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including a photocopy, recording or any information retrieval system without written permission from the publisher.

Every e ort was made to ensure the accuracy of this publication. e Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information presented here or be held accountable for omissions or errors. Please report any changes to the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce for inclusion in subsequent editions.

Articles written by: Doug Mell

Cover & back photos: Tim Abraham Photography

Published by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce

101 North Farwell St., Suite 101 Eau Claire, WI 54703 Phone: 715-834-1204

© 2024 Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce
The EC Life Magazine
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Background photo by Tim Abraham Photography
18 Contents
Building
Home is Here Table of Contents photos by Tim Abraham Photography 3
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Table of
Business Our Vitality
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Building Business

How do you follow opening what has become a popular ice cream business in downtown Eau Claire? How about going in a totally different direction to open an upscale women’s consignment shop outside of downtown?

“It was something that I really felt passionate about doing,” said Kayla Midthun, who opened Shine On Boutique at 2209 Fairfax St., next to Jim Bob’s Pizza in the strip by HyVee. Midthun and her husband Blayne own Ramone’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Eau Claire.

Midthun’s store, which opened in November 2022, takes a different twist on the consignment model: Those wishing to sell clothing, purses and other items can rent a rack and curate their offerings for customers. The boutique then handles the sales and keeps a portion of the proceeds. The boutique will also sell items in the typical consignment fashion, taking care of the pricing, tagging, and selling.

Midthun said she has been a consignment and thrift store shopper her whole life and bemoaned the closing of the previous shops in Eau Claire.

“We felt like there was something missing in Eau Claire,” she said, which was “a space solely curated for women to shop resale. We didn’t really have a space for women to earn money on their things that needed a new life,” Midthun added.

Opening Shine On, Midthun said, was made possible because the family had operated Ramone’s long enough that they could spend the time needed to start a new business.

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Photo by Tim Abraham Photography

“You have systems, and you have things in place,” she said. “We have a good manager who does a lot of key things for us at Ramone’s. That gave me the freedom to feel like I had the ability to do something else.”

Midthun said the family opened Ramone’s in 2016. Blayne Midthun stayed home to care for the couple’s three children while Kayla continued her work in the non-profit sector. “Our youngest had just started kindergarten,” she said. “So, Blayne was looking into what he was going to do.”

He had worked at Menard’s in real estate, Midthun said, and “we jumped in because we were hometown kids. We wanted a spot to bring our kids for ice cream.” As the plans for Ramone’s were coming together, Midthun said, “Blayne was the driver. He wrote the business plan for Ramone’s, and he did a lot of the market research.”

With Shine On, she said, “I was very adamant that I wanted to do it kind of on my own.” Midthun conceded that for a long time she had been telling her husband to put any additional business ideas aside because “we’ve got our hands full” with running Ramone’s and raising a family.

“So, I felt a little hypocritical” about working on Shine On, Midthun said. “But it just felt like it was something that I really felt passionate about.”

Shine On is good for both the sellers and the buyers, Midthun said.

“A lot of times it’s kind of a creative thing” for those who rent the racks to sell merchandise, Midthun said. “They think it’s fun, or they do it with a friend. So, they’re combining their closets. Then they come and work on it together.” The clothes can be from someone who is retiring or changing jobs, or just from women who want to rotate new clothes into their closet. Midthun said the shop also gives outlet for people who buy clothes, decide they do not want them, but have missed the return window.

“This has given people a spot to at least get something back for it,” Midthun said about those non-returned items.

“I hear from a significant number of women who say my weight has changed up or down,” Midthun said. “These clothes don’t fit, and I’ve decided I can’t just keep them.”

For buyers, she said, they can purchase high-end clothing, etc., at a fraction of the original cost. “I get the joy of seeing the woman who finds the thing” she’s wanted to try “but she couldn’t buy it retail. Some of the brands in here, new, it’s a $200 shirt. Then you can get it for 30 bucks.”

Or high schoolers will come in for brand-named leggings that sell for $125 new. “That’s not affordable for anybody,” she said, adding that well-known brands “move really fast because there’s just a demand.

“Style is just what you like,” Midthun said. “It doesn’t have limits based on age or any of that. So that’s been really fun.”

Midthun said she’s happy with the initial reception that Shine On Boutique has received and believes it bodes well for the future. The store is open Wednesdays through Sundays. Sellers are in the store on Mondays and Tuesdays to refresh the merchandise.

“It’s been growing,” Midthun said about her business. “There were the people who found us right away, but every day that the store is open I meet three to five people who say it’s their first time and then they’re regulars.”

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Photo by Tim Abraham Photography

For nine years, Chippewa Valley diners have been able to experience authentic Japanese and Chinese food at Ninja Japanese and Chinese Restaurant in downtown Eau Claire. Now those same diners can experience authentic ramen, curry, rice bowls, poke bowls, milk teas, fruit teas, appetizers and other drinks at a companion restaurant, also in Eau Claire’s downtown.

Binh Lu, co-owner with her husband Feng Lin of the Madden Ramen eatery at 10 S. Barstow St., said her husband has always wanted to open a ramen restaurant in Eau Claire. Ramen is a Japanese noodle dish made from wheat noodles served in a broth, usually with soy or miso flavors, accompanied by toppings. Offerings at Madden include pork broth tonkatsu ramen, seafood ramen, steak ramen, veggie ramen, shoyu ramen and chicken ramen.

“My husband always wanted to open a ramen place somewhere downtown,” Lu said. “He really wanted it.” While ramen is available at some restaurants, she said, Eau Claire didn’t have one devoted to the dish.

The attraction for ramen is the healthy ingredients, Lu said. “We make our own soup base” from stock bones, she said, adding, “our soup base is very nutritious, and there’s no MSG in the soup base.” Lu said she and her husband made the decision to buy the space that became available in the Haymarket Landing building instead of leasing it. That gave the family the ability to renovate the space as they wanted, and the result is an extremely appealing open space with views of the Eau Claire River and the Phoenix Park development.

“We have a big space here,” Lu said. “It’s nice. People like it, how open and wide it is.” The owners gave the couple the option of buying half of what they eventually purchased, Lu said, but “that would have been too small.” The present location, she said, “was at the right time at the right location.”

Offering ramen in Eau Claire does require some education about the dish, Lu said. “A couple of people came in, and they looked at the menu,” Lu said. They were about to leave after not finding anything they liked, she said, but finally ordered curry chicken and fried rice.

“They liked it so much,” Lu said. “You just have to sit down and try it one time. You are already here sitting down and looking at the menu. How do you know you don’t like it?”

While more familiar types of restaurants might be busy from day one, Lu said, with a restaurant serving a unique menu, “you just have to build up your clientele slowly. People have to really come in and try it, and then they will like it.”

However, Lu said, younger people seem to more readily take to new kinds of foods. “They can tell if the pork belly is good or not,” she said. “We found out that a lot of the younger generation know what they like to eat,” she said, and are willing to experiment. Lu said she also is surprised at how spicey some customers like their food prepared.

For now, Lu said, lunch is the busiest time of the day and Saturdays and Sundays are the busiest days of the week. Finding workers also has not been a problem, Lu said, because they have college students who live nearby who want to work at the restaurant.

As for the future, Lu said, she and her husband will continue to build the business at Madden Ramen and Ninja restaurants, so another eatery isn’t in the future right now. “Not anytime soon,” Lu said about another restaurant for the couple. “After five years? Maybe.”

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Photo by Tim Abraham Photography

Business is so good for Nestle Health Science in Eau Claire that the company, which opened its plant on the city’s west side in 1987, is making a $43 million investment in its operations that will increase its Eau Claire employment.

“Our Nestle Health Science Eau Claire manufacturing facility plays an important role in meeting the needs of patients and consumers by producing a diverse range of nutritional solutions, including Boost, Carnation Breakfast Essentials, and various medical nutrition products,” said Gaëtan Sion, vice president of manufacturing, Nestlé Health Science U.S. “Also, as a member of the Eau Claire community since 1987, we’re proud to contribute to the local economy by generating job opportunities with competitive pay and benefits.”

The facility produces medical nutrition products, such as tube feeding formulas, and nutritional drinks from brands such as BOOST and Carnation Breakfast Essentials. The investment will add two new production lines to increase the manufacturing of the high-demand ready-to-drink consumer products. “With this investment, Nestlé Health Science will expand and enhance our manufacturing facilities to better meet the needs of patients and consumers,” Sion said.

The investment will bring approximately 60 jobs to Eau Claire, ranging from processing, packaging and filling lines to mechanics and engineers. “Nestlé Health Science’s additional investment in Wisconsin is great news for the Eau Claire community and our state,” said Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the state’s lead economic development organization.

Their commitment to innovation, sustainability, and economic wellbeing makes them a leader not only in Wisconsin but in the global marketplace, and we welcome their expansion in our state.”

A spokesman for Nestle said this capacity expansion follows another major expansion in 2020. In that expansion, which added 70 jobs at the facility, production was increased significantly, the company said, “allowing the Nestlé Health Science business to meet a growing demand for products globally and in the U.S.”

The expansion also meant that the Eau Claire facility “will become our largest Nestle Health Science manufacturing site. We are proud to build on our longstanding commitment to the Eau Claire community and drive from there our unparalleled passion for nourishing and enhancing lives,” a spokeswoman for Nestlé Health Science USA, said in 2020.

Officials said the Eau Claire plant is a zero wasteto-landfill facility. The new production lines will manufacture ready-to-drink nutrition products in Tetra Pak cartons made with responsibly sourced material, they said, and the site also is investing in water optimization that will ensure over 90 percent of total factory water usage is recovered.

In 2022, the facility was recognized by the U.S. Dept. of Energy Better Plants initiative for reaching its energy reduction goal more than two years ahead of schedule. Eau Claire, along with all Nestlé Health Science factories and sites, is committed to being powered entirely by renewable electricity by 2025.

Nestle officials said Eau Claire is a global leader in sustainability efforts and has a B Corp Certification, which requires an organization to meet high standards of social and environmental responsibility and transparency across five areas: Governance, Workers, Community, Environment, and Customers.

Nestlé Health Science, Nestlé Professional and Nespresso operate in more than 200 locations in 34 states and employ more than 36,000 people.

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Our Vitality

Kim Way frequently uses one phrase in discussing the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Sonnentag Event Center & Fieldhouse at the County Materials Complex along the Chippewa River in Eau Claire: “It’s a game changer.”

She uses the phrase when discussing the 81,300-square-foot fieldhouse featuring a full football practice field with artificial turf. She uses the phrase again when discussing the impact the accompanying Sonnentag Event Center will have on UW-Eau Claire’s athletic teams, which will have the most modern facilities possible when the facility opens in 2024.

The Sonnentag facility joins the Menomonie Market Food Co-op and Timber Soul Sanctuary in adding to the vitality of the Chippewa Valley. The event center will hold 5,000 people in total and 3,500 for a men’s or women’s basketball team. Way, the UW-Eau Claire Foundation CEO, said coaches already are noticing the effect the project is having on their athletic recruits.

Tonja Englund, the women’s head basketball coach, Way related, “told me she brought one of her top recruits in here with her parents, and they were standing in the event center looking down at the court. The young woman said to Tonja, ‘You have the best facilities.’ Tonja said that in the 24 years she has been here nobody’s ever told her that.”

The massive event center and fieldhouse complex arising on Eau Claire’s near west side was 10 years in the making and resulted from a generous family donating the land and construction funds to the Foundation. Alumni John and Carolyn Sonnentag, owners of County Materials Corp., initially committed $10 million in land and money for the project, and then increased their total donation to $70 million for design and construction.

Mayo Clinic Health System-Northeast Wisconsin became a partner in the project as a site for its diagnostic imaging and Sports Medicine Center. The facility also will house a Center for Health and Wellbeing for UW-Eau Claire students and others to use to work out, as well as offices for Blugold Athletics.

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Photo by Tim Abraham Photography

The event center will be the home of the Blugold men’s and women’s basketball team and other athletic tournaments, large indoor concerts, and other entertainment and sporting events. Way said the Chippewa Valley population will appreciate the large entertainment events that the facility can hold, and some events already are in the works. “There are some exciting things that have the potential to happen here,” Way said with a smile, adding she pledged not to reveal the details.

Way said officials hope the event center will be completed in time for UW-Eau Claire to hold commencement there in May 2024, although as Way said. “We still hold out hope, but we have some supply chain issues that we’re trying to work through.”

Both Sonnentags attended UW-Eau Claire in the 1960s and were well acquainted with the inadequacies of 70-year-old Zorn Arena, the university’s current basketball court. John Sonnentag has said he began thinking about the project some 20 years ago and started the ball rolling with a donation in 2014 of 25 acres sitting along the Chippewa River -- land that had been home to the family concrete business.

To ensure that the project would be built in their lifetime, the Sonnentags said in 2021 they would provide the funding necessary to start and complete the construction. The Sonnentags, Way said, “were always committed to doing something” even through the delays that set back the groundbreaking.

“Their’s is the most remarkable generosity,” Way said of the Sonnentags. “What they have done is transformative.”

Officials believe the Sonnentag project will result in a spate of development along Menomonie Street in Eau Claire. A local developer, Pablo Group, already is constructing a 128-room SpringHill Suites hotel just west of the event center, and a restaurant is planned for the site as well.

Sustainability is a big theme of the project, Way said, pointing to the geothermal system that was installed under the parking area, using 500 deep wells to provide the energy for heating and cooling. Because of this system and other innovations, Way said, the project is applying for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

“We are going to qualify for it at some level,” Way said of LEED certification. “There’s not another building of this size and scale that is going to be this sustainable.” Way also had words of praise for the general contractor, Eau Claire-based Market & Johnson.

“I’ve worked with them (Market & Johnson) on every project I have done,” Way said, “and they’ve never failed me.”Design services were provided by Ayres Associates of Eau Claire.

“They (Ayres) have done a great job for us,” Way said. “What I like about this project is our major partners are all local.”

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For Crystal Halvorson, making the Menomonie Market Food Co-op successful in Menomonie and now Eau Claire is more than a job – it is also her passion.

Halvorson, the co-op’s general manager, in 2003 joined four others in starting Just Local Food Cooperative in Eau Claire. She then worked for both Just Local in Eau Claire and Menomonie Market for about two years until she decided to cut back to one position and remained with the Menomonie Market.

Flash forward to 2018-19. Halvorson and the Menomonie Market’s Board of Directors were “looking to what would be next” for the co-op, she said. Menomonie Market had just held a successful fundraising effort to build a new co-op in Menomonie.

“In 2014 we were the smallest co-op in the United States to raise a million dollars” for a new building in Menomonie, Halvorson said. “And we did that in six weeks. It was like people were ready” for an expanded Menomonie co-op. The succcessful fundraising allowed the Menomonie Market to buy land from Dunn County just east of Menomonie’s downtown, Halvorson said. The new Menomonie Market’s 13,000-square-foot facility opened in 2015.

“In 2018 or 2019 we were pulling out of the woods financially from our expansion” in Menomonie, Halvorson said. “The board and I were sort of looking to what would be next.” The board “brainstormed all kinds of fun ideas,” she said, including going into the apartment or gas station business, or “what can we do next in our community.

“But we really came down to that, we’re good at grocery,” Halvorson said. “There’s more potential for that, and that’s what we know best.”

The board decided to pursue an expansion project and initially looked at the Chippewa Falls area, she said, “because we also wanted to respect Just Local’s presence in the Eau Claire market.”

However, Halvorson said, over the past 20 years, “One or the other of us reached out with the potential of collaborating, but it was never the right time for both of us.”

That changed in 2020, Halvorson said, when “all the circumstances kind of came around to being right for both of us” to join forces.

The Menomonie Market’s situation had stabilized after completing the expansion project, Halvorson said, and Just Local found itself needing financial and administrative services. Menomonie Market agreed to provide administrative services for Just Local, and Halvorson became interim general manager for Just Local in March 2020.

“So, our official collaboration with one another co-op happened at the exact same time that Covid happened,” Halvorson said, noting that March 2020 was when the economy essentially shut down as the pandemic enveloped the United States.

The early days of the pandemic, she said, “was a really wild time” for grocery stores. “It was our wildest two weeks of sales ever at both locations... It was a really heavy lift for our administrative team and for everybody.”

It didn’t take long for both boards to realize that a merger might make sense for both entities, Halvorson said. “It was almost immediately that we saw that our values were aligned, that we wanted the same things for Eau Claire. So it was a pretty sweet romance, honestly.”

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Background photo by Tim Abraham Photography

Not that the merger came easily, she said, adding, “We had a lot of pretty big and sometimes difficult conversations over the course of that year of figuring out what would it (the merger) look like and should we do it?”

Most of the questions were answered by summer of 2021, Halvorson said, so the merger was put to a vote by the members of both co-ops. Both memberships gave the merger a 95 percent approval rate.

Once the merger was accomplished, the co-op could turn to the need for a new building in Eau Claire, Halvorson said.

“One of the deliverables of the merger was that we would be expanding” in Eau Caire, she said, since the former Just Local store in downtown Eau Claire was too small for a growing business.

The board of directors “had make it clear that we wanted to be downtown,” Halvorson added, “and we looked at lots of different spots” before deciding on the former City Lot 7 bordered by Galloway and North Barstow streets across from the new Children’s Museum.

Along with finding a suitable site, Menomonie Market launched a successful $2 million fundraising effort. “That’s people buying $500 shares at a time,” Halvorson said.

The co-op’s new 14,000-square-foot building opened in October with a deli, upstairs and downstairs seating area and an event space on the second floor. The store is open daily.

“In the first two weeks that we were open,” Halvorson said, “we got 160 more new members. So we were signing them up just about constantly in the new location.”

Halvorson said the co-op got exceptional quality from its contractors, including River Valley Architects and the general contractor, Market & Johnson, both of Eau Claire.

While these two major projects definitely will add to the vitality of the Chippewa Valley, small businesses also are starting up that will add to the reasons people want to live and work in the Chippewa Valley.

For example, in late summer, Hidden Timber Soul Sanctuary opened its doors to those looking for a place to practice yoga with goats and alpacas.

“Yoga is a modality that allows goats to participate with you,” said Tiffany Brett-Buckman, who owns the fledgling business with her wife, Kristina BrettBuckman, on a beautiful piece of land south of Fall Creek. “Having them around (during a yoga session) makes you very, very aware” of your surroundings.

As Tiffany Brett-Buckman explained it, she and Kristina were living outside of Wisconsin with Covid pressing down on them in the summer of 2020. As Kristina said on the business’ website: “It was during that summer that I made a promise to myself that my life was going to change and I was going to focus on experiencing some joy and peace … and FUN, in my life - sooner than later. After all, tomorrow is not promised.”

“It did come from a big place of grief,” Tiffany Brett-Buckman said of the reason the couple made such a huge life change during the pandemic. “We wanted to focus on mental health and make that a priority.”

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Photo by Tim Abraham Photography

Those discussions led Tiffany and Kristina to look for and eventually purchase the land that would become Hidden Timber Soul Sanctuary. After readying the property for goat and alpaca husbandry, building a yoga studio, to say nothing of letting the public know they existed, the BrettBuckmans acquired seven Nigerian Dwarf goats and five alpacas.

They then hired yoga instructors and opened their doors for a fall rotation of goat yoga sessions on Friday nights through Sunday mornings. The sessions will resume in the spring, depending on the weather.

So why mix goats with the time-tested practice of yoga?

Goats “increase the happy hormones,” Tiffany Brett-Buckman said. “They bring joy.”

In short, she said, having goats present during a yoga session “puts people at ease.”

Yoga also fits well with a goat’s temperament, she said.

“They are the stars of the show,” Tiffany BrettBuckman said. “They know when it is time for them to go to work.” The goats line up at the gate and run up a runway into the yoga studio when a session is about to start, she said.

What will persuade a goat to work during a yoga session? It seems these goats have a thing for a particular snack cracker.

“There are animal crackers in it for them,” Tiffany Brett-Buckman said, conceding that no one knows why goats love animal crackers so dearly. Moreover, she said, “they are very curious, like a dog. … They are very interested and very social with adults.”

Goat tending takes concentration, she said, adding, “Goats are wily, and they like to escape.” In addition, the goats tend to hang together, Tiffany Brett-Buckman said, since “they are very herdoriented animals.”

However, Tiffany Brett-Buckman said, real yoga does occur during a session, only with goats walking around. “It is very important that people knew we took the yoga experience seriously,” she said.

Alpacas will be brought into the yoga business next year as the Brett-Buckmans look to expand their operation. Both are maintaining their current employment until they are able to turn the yoga business into a supporting operation.

“Our hope is that it does” become the couple’s only job, Tiffany Brett-Buckman added.

She said one of the main reasons, along with being close to a college town, that the couple decided to locate in rural Eau Claire County is because of the tremendous tourism industry that exists in the Chippewa Valley.

“We know it is going to be a tourism destination,” Tiffany Brett-Buckman said of the goat yoga business. “We are going to work with other businesses around here to support tourism.”

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Home is Here

Few things say home in the Chippewa Valley more than the YMCA. It has been an integral part of the culture since opening in Eau Claire in 1881, providing families with recreational, educational and socialization programming.

But like all organizations, the YMCA had to evolve or expand to stay vital. The YMCA of Eau Claire merged with the Chippewa Falls YMCA in 2019 to create the YMCA of the Chippewa Valley.

That followed the John & Fay Menard YMCA Tennis Center opening in April 2018 and the Eau Claire YMCA acquiring the L.E. Phillips YMCA Sports Center in September 2018.

But a major addition to the YMCA’s facilities occurred on Jan. 1, 2024, when the YMCA added the large Eau Claire Fitness facility on the south side to its offerings. Eau Claire South YMCA opened on Jan. 2.

Derek White, Eau Claire YMCA CEO, said he had his eye on Eau Claire Fitness even before taking the job in September 2022 after moving here with his family from a YMCA appointment in Maryland.

During a drive around the Eau Claire area with his wife, White said, he saw the Eau Claire Fitness building on a hill off Highway 93.

“And I said that that would make a great location for a YMCA one day, in this part of town,” White said.

The chance to take over Eau Claire Fitness followed a long time during which the YMCA looked at and rejected several remodeling or expansion plans.

“The board was very clear” when he was being hired, White said. “They said, For 40 years, the YMCA has talked about our downtown YMCA. There’s been a lot of starts, then excitement, and then stops. So, they needed a CEO that was going to help identify what the future would look like for our organization for the next 50 to 100 years.”

It was also important for the board to hire a CEO who “was going to build relationships in the community,” White added. “I love the relationship component, which is really how the conversation started with Eau Claire Fitness.”

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Photo by Tim Abraham Photography

White said he lives on the Eau Claire’s south side, and one day just stopped in to see Laurie Powers, former co-owner of Eau Claire Fitness.

“Laurie is very kind and wears her heart on her sleeve, similar to me,” White said. “So, we spent some time getting to know each other, and I learned a little bit about her business.”

Those conversations continued, White said, and Powers said she wanted to discuss what a transition “could look like, and that’s where our friendship really blossomed.”

The deal had to make financial sense for the YMCA, White said. For starters, the YMCA had to determine there weren’t many people who held duo memberships at both facilities.

“We weren’t serving a ton of people as duplicate members,” White said. “For me, that was a great opportunity for us to serve a population that we were not currently serving.”

It’s also important for a modern YMCA to have facilities that are dispersed in the community, White said.

“As our communities continue to grow, people tend to look for services that a YMCA offers within a little closer distance,” White said. “It should be the front porch of the community.”

The purchase of Eau Claire Fitness has led to inevitable questions about the fate of the 108,000-square-foot downtown YMCA, which is 63 years old. White said he was emphatic that there are no plans to close that downtown facility.

The downtown YMCA was constructed with a lot of hallways and other unuseable space, White said, which makes remodeling more difficult.

“No, we’re not closing the downtown YMCA,” White said. “Do I continue to keep the foot on the gas and try to figure out what the future looks like here? Absolutely. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not working vigilantly to find out what the future of downtown looks like.”

Many who use the downtown YMCA walk to the facility, White said, and “they rely on this place. So, we don’t want to vacate that. We want to add additional opportunities so that people who may not come downtown any more have an option to be part of the YMCA.”

Acquiring Eau Claire Fitness gives the YMCA the facility flexibility it needs to decide what is next for the downtown YMCA, White said, adding, “So without the purchase of Eau Claire Fitness, you’re stuck.” The building might not be suitable for renovating, White said, leading to the question of “is there an opportunity to do something new here?”

Whatever happens in the future, White said, the YMCA of the Chippewa Valley will adhere to the principles that have guided the YMCA since its inception: providing health and fitness, childcare and community building programs.

“And so, every single day, we ask ourselves the question of how we can answer the call within this community to help,” White said.

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Photo by Tim Abraham Photography
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Background photo by Tim Abraham Photography

It is hard to find an area in the Chippewa Valley without a building that has been designed by River Valley Architects, a major architectural firm with headquarters in Eau Claire.

“You can look out this window and pick off eight projects that we did right there,” said Jamey Bowe, River Valley president, pointing to Altoona’s River Prairie development. The projects he mentions include Cowboy Jack’s, the River Prairie event center, Staybridge Hotel, the building that houses Juanita’s Mexican Restaurant, and the WestWisconsin and RCU credit union buildings.

Mentioning projects elsewhere in the Chippewa Valley, Bowe added, “We’re doing all these projects right here in our hometown.”

Bowe and a partner began River Valley Architects in 2008. Bowe said he was working as an architect in another firm, which was going through some painful transitions, and the time seemed right to strike out on his own.

“So, we were working out of the basement of our homes,” Bowe said, he in Jim Falls and his partner in the Menomonie area.

“Of course, in 2008 or 2009 the economy wasn’t doing so great,” Bowe said. “There wasn’t a lot of new building construction projects that were just jumping out.”

Forming the company was a leap of faith, Bowe said, and “we were fortunate to pick up a couple of small projects along the way. We were doing a lot of work in senior living, the assisted living side of things, and some small clinic type work. But we’re quite diversified in our project experience, and that gives us the ability to be flexible. With no overhead, to speak of, we were able to be a little aggressive (with a bid) when a project has become available.”

Eventually, Bowe said, the two-person firm found its audience and, “Then pretty soon we’re finding ourselves working 60 to 70, sometimes 80, hours a week, seven days a week. And we thought, we really need a couple employees here.”

It so happened that River Valley Architects was working on a design for Green Oasis in Lake Hallie, Bowe said, and the second floor of the new building became available.

“It was perfect timing,” Bowe said of the firm’s move into its first office. “Then we hired a couple of folks and worked in that upper-level space from about 2011 to 2018, when we moved here” to its Birch Street location.

The company went into a “growth mode” in the rented space, Bowe said: “We were adding people, and getting more projects, and getting more exposure to different industries. Our client types or project types just kept going. And, in 2018, we moved into this building.”

Bowe estimated that from 2017-19, River Valley Architects grew from eight or nine employees to 18 or 19. “That’s a lot,” Bowe said. “So, we were sort of drinking from a firehose at that point.” Bowe said the firm’s growth during that time could be attributed to several factors.

“The workload justified it,” Bowe said of the workforce increase. Customers the firm worked with in the past were calling to ask for a proposal, he said, adding, “That kind of made the light bulb go on for me, that we’re missing out on a lot of opportunities just because of our sheer capacity. Part of our capacity was limited by the office environment that we were in.”

The EC Life Magazine
Photo by Tim Abraham Photography
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Background photo by Tim Abraham Photography

Bowe said he had taken control of the company by then, did some strategic planning, and moved into the larger offices on Eau Claire’s north side.

“It’s amazing that when you start adding good people, other people follow,” Bowe said. “We were receiving resumes from experienced people in the area who wanted to come to work for us.”

Then in 2020, another opportunity presented itself to River Valley Architects when the possibility emerged of acquiring another Eau Claire architectural firm, SDS Architects, which had been around for some 50 years.

“It was really a win-win,” Bowe said of the SDS acquisition that was finalized in September 2021. River Valley added eight SDS employees, bringing the total number of employees to 28, he said, and bringing SDS into the company also expanded River Valley’s potential customer base. As Bowe explained it, SDS had strong relationships with the educational and other public sectors.

“It was an extremely strategic objective of mine to say that if we really want to diversify and want to be able to weather any kind of economic storm, we should be able to do private and public work effectively and do it well,” Bowe said.

Another expansion occurred officially about two years ago when the firm opened an office in Colorado.

“I really feel like some of our next growth strategies are going to be in that market,” Bowe said of the west.

So what does the future hold for the firm?

“I have a couple of strategic locations in mind based on where some of our work is,” Bowe said. “But we also will continue to grow and expand with our projects. We have projects as far south as Texas and as far north as International Falls.

As a youngster growing up in Ladysmith, Wis., Daniel Beck caught the skateboarding bug. Instead of getting sick, skateboarding indirectly led to Beck in 2016 starting Midwest Meals to bring healthy and convenient food to the Eau Claire area.

“Healthy meals for busy people” is how Beck succinctly espouses the Midwest Meals concept. Customers either order online or stop at the Midwest Meals store in the Eastridge Center to pick up the prepared meals. Each meal has a median content of about 500 calories with at least 30 grams of protein, Beck said, along with a healthful amount of fiber and other nutrients. Delivery is available as well.

Beck said he started on his business career while growing up in Rusk County and having to put up with a substandard skateboarding park. “It was really rundown,” he said. “There were holes and everything in it.”

So, Beck and a friend raised money to buy a closed skateboard park in Minnesota and reconstruct it in Ladysmith. “That gave me the entrepreneurial bug,” Beck said.

After high school, Beck enrolled at UW-Eau Claire as a business major. But Beck had his sights set on sun-drenched California, where he went on an exchange program to California State University, San Bernadino. Beck had gotten into weightlifting and body building, and California fit his lifestyle perfectly.

By chance, Beck walked into what he called a “meal-prep company” in Los Angeles.

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Photo by Tim Abraham Photography

“There were probably 20 or 30 commercial coolers stocked to the gills with all of these meals,” Beck said. “To a kid from Ladysmith, I’m not even thinking that this is an option. I’m still cooking everything myself. I thought that was a really cool thing. I just put in the back of my mind.”

Beck said that as much as he enjoyed the California lifestyle, he returned to UW-Eau Claire to finish his degree and start a career in business. As part of a capstone project 2016, Beck said, he pitched a business idea like the one he remembered from Los Angeles.

Beck said he had a job offer “selling suits in Minneapolis” but figured if he didn’t strike out on his own right after graduation, he probably wouldn’t do it ever. “I figured if I was going to fail, I might as well do it now,” Beck said with a chuckle.

Back then, Beck said, he didn’t have the resources to buy all the kitchen equipment and whatever else he needed, so he contracted with Forage, a shared-use community kitchen that was in Banbury Place at the time. (Forage has since been sold to Lori Borg and has moved to 403 S. Barstow St.)

“It was a great way to start, and it had everything that we needed,” Beck said. “So, in 2016, I went for it.”

Before too long, in 2017, Beck said, it became apparent that Midwest Meals would need a larger space and one conducive to picking up meals.

A leasing agent showed Beck a suitable space in Eastridge Center on Hastings Way, and work began on the space in 2017.

“I did quite a bit of work myself,” Beck said of the six-month construction process that ended shortly before 2018. Beck said his business benefited from the trend toward healthier eating, adding, “People are becoming more health conscious.” The goal was, he said, “is we’re not going to be a fad.”

Beck said the driving force behind Midwest Meals is to rely on “nutrition science” for their offerings. “We’re trying to take the guesswork out of meal prep and make it as convenient as possible.”

Under the Midwest Meals model, customers place a weekly order before Saturday, and the meals are available for pickup on Monday. Grab-and-go meals and delivery also are available. The meals are fully cooked and ready in the microwave after three minutes or less. Meal choices change monthly.

“All diets work for a period of time,” Beck said.

“The thing that stops diets from working is adherence. Most of them are not set up in a way that you can adhere to them for any long duration of time because they’re usually too extreme.” Beck continued: “We try to listen to our customers a lot about what they’re liking and what they’re not liking. It goes back to this core fundamental of doing things that make sense nutritionally.”

As the business matured, Beck said, he pondered “what does the future look like.” After considerable review, he said, the best path for growth seemed to a franchise option, which Beck and his franchise partners at Midwest Meals are promoting under the Simple Plan Foods moniker. One Simple Plan Foods franchise has opened in Columbia, S.C., and another is under construction in Willmar, Minn.

Beck said Midwest Meals wouldn’t work for a franchise name because, “It’s weird if there’s a Midwest Meals franchise in New York.” Looking back, Beck said he appreciates all the help he has gotten from other business people in the Chippewa Valley.

“In Eau Claire, people are really receptive to helping other business owners,” Beck said.

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Photo by Tim Abraham Photography
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Think Eau Claire is a project of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, in collaboration with Volume One, an Eau Claire-based media, event, retail, and production company. Think Eau Claire is a project of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, in collaboration with Volume One, an Eau Claire-based media, event, retail, and production company. how eau claire stacks up PUBLIC SAFETY 96% of Eau Claire residents report feeling safe in their neighborhood. KIDS & FAMILY 90% of Eau Claire residents said the city is an excellent place to raise children. HOME OWNERSHIP $170,000 median home sale price for Eau Claire County. YOUR TIME Mean travel time to work in the city of Eau Claire. PUBLIC SAFETY Eau Claire ranks as the 13th safest of 371 metro areas in the nation. SAVE MORE What costs $1 in EC will cost $1.10 in Minneapolis and $1.30 in Chicago. The National Citizen Survey (2016) The National Citizen Survey (2016) Realtors Associations of WI, IL, and MN (2017) U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2010) Crime Rate Rankings, SAGE Stats, CQ Press (2015) Council for Community and Economic Research (2018) thriving, working, playing. find more here: thinkeauclaire.com how eau claire stacks up The EC Life Magazine 24
Proud to support Chippewa Valley and beyond. Visit us at bmo.com is proud to announce an Investor Employee Benefits Program in partnership with: THE BENEFITS YOU CAN SELECT FROM: - Group Life - Voluntary Life - Short Term Disability - Dental - Vision ADDITIONAL GROUP BENEFITS: - Long Term Disability - Accident & Critical Illness - Identity Theft “This opportunity allows Chamber Investors to offer group benefits with as little as two employees.” SIMPLE | EASY | AFFORDABLE 715-318-4442 (direct) wallywheeler@ms-ig.com www.ms-ig.com To learn more contact Wally Wheeler: www.eauclairechamber.org 25

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FAST FACTS

EST. IN 1915

The Eau Claire Chamber celebrated 100 years in 2015.

Staff consists of eight community oriented thinkers.

1,100 investor businesses on annual basis.

The Chamber website has over 2,670 views with 1,237 visits per month.

40 Ambassadors with over 400+ years of combined business experience.

Our weekly video series the Monday Morning Minute has over 800 views every week.

Developed the Chippewa Valley Alliance (CVA). A collaboration between the Chippewa Falls and Menomonie Chamber.

Four pillar value system that consists of Advocacy, Workforce, Education and Investor Engagement.

Investor dues structure transitioned from traditional structure to new five level tiered program in March 2019.

Our mission is to be the ADVOCATE of business.
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WORKFORCE INITIATIVES

The Chamber is a champion for employers in the Chippewa Valley as they work to solve their immediate and long-term talent and workforce challenges. With approximately 1,100 investors representing a workforce of more than 45,000 employees, the Chamber is the leading area business organization representing the interests of the community employers.

DEVELOP

We work to build the talent pipeline for Eau Claire businesses by partnering with K-12 and post-secondary institutions to expose students to career opportunities in the area.

• Youth Apprenticeship Consortium

• Job Fairs

• Workforce Solutions Summit

• Conferences on critical workforce solutions

• Wage Survey

ATTRACT

We create services and programs that attract talent to the Eau Claire Area and highlight why the Chippewa Valley is a great place to work, live, and play.

• ThinkEauClaire.com, a digital resource for people looking to relocate

• Explore Eau Claire Community Concierge Program

• Job Board

• Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives

RETAIN

Once talent moves to the Eau Claire Area, we provide businesses with services and programs to not only retain their employees but encourage continued development so the individual and business can reach their full potential.

• Professional Development

• Workforce Connector, monthly publication

• Workforce Directory

• The Perspective, monthly publication

• Young Professionals of the Chippewa Valley

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To get involved reach out here: information@eauclairechamber.org 715-834-1204
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