Eau Claire proves smaller communities can compete for talent

Eau Claire proves smaller communities can compete for talent

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 host 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.

Although Wisconsin’s population continues to expand, its civilian workforce is flattening out and may even decline by 2035, according to state Department of Workforce Development estimates. In part, that’s because the state’s population is aging, but Wisconsin must also do a better job of attracting and retaining young workers – primarily those in their 20s and 30s.

After being told repeatedly he couldn’t build a software company in Eau Claire, Halmstad proved the skeptics wrong by offering a creative work environment and by promoting the region as an attractive place for young people to live.

It’s a formula that is working in other mid-sized cities such as Appleton and Beloit, where downtown revivals are underway.

Why are cities of all sizes important? In 47 of 50 states, including Wisconsin, they generate the majority of all economic output. In Wisconsin, cities of 50,000 or more account for 73 percent of the state’s jobs.

Those cities must become magnets for talent in order for Wisconsin to compete. While the state loses some of its homegrown talent to other states, studies show an even bigger problem may be its failure to attract people from beyond.

“Cool” cities of all sizes can help with that challenge – not only in bringing home those who left Wisconsin, but in appealing to people elsewhere. It’s not just about brats and cheese in the emerging battle for talent, but computer bytes and culture.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

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