By BARRY ADAMS
Wisconsin State Journal
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (AP) — There was uncertainty, anger and sadness when Nathan Berg’s parents both lost their jobs at a massive tire plant along the Eau Claire River.
They weren’t alone.
When the announcement from Uniroyal-Goodrich came down in early 1991 that the 1.9 million-square-foot plant would be closed 18 months later, the results were the evaporation of 1,358 high-paying jobs and what seemed to be a death-knell for this northwestern Wisconsin city.
Rubber and tires had been the main industry here since the plant was established just a year after UW-Eau Claire was founded, in 1916.
“It was devastating,” said Berg, who was in high school when the news came and is now an award-winning chef. “Neither of my parents knew what they were going to do at the time but they both ended up finding work and moving on.”
And collectively, so have the residents of this city.
The proof can be seen in the once crumbling downtown. It’s where more than $200 million worth of commercial, private and public projects over the last six years have transformed the city center by bringing new housing, office buildings, restaurants and boutique hotels.
The crown jewel came in September, when the $60 million Pablo Center at the Confluence opened its doors. The performing-arts and visitors center on the banks of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers has one of the largest black-box theaters in the world. There’s also a 1,200-seat main performance hall, a recording studio, rehearsal rooms and a gallery space. All of it’s shared with the university in an attempt to stay true to the Pablo Center’s mission of “creating regional education opportunities in the performing and visual arts for people of all ages and backgrounds.”
Since its opening, the venue has played host to nearly 240 shows and 80,000 guests, some of whom regularly come from as far away as Minneapolis, Duluth and Madison.
“We have a special sauce that’s going on here and that special sauce led to this,” Jason Jon Anderson, executive director of the Pablo Center, said as he showed off the main performance hall. “As we’re completing our first year there’s a sense that the thing that couldn’t be done has kind of broken all the rules, is being highly successful and is delivering a product the city didn’t even know it really wanted.”
As for the tire plant, it’s in the picture too. And in a big way.
The sprawling, multi-building complex along the Eau Claire River, just north of downtown, has been redeveloped into a massive hub for manufacturing, entrepreneurial businesses and artisans.
The former tire plant, now known as Banbury Place, is home to 500 people who work for 155 companies. These enterprises can be so small as to consist of individual artists who paint, sculpt or give music lessons. And American Phoenix, which employs nearly 200 people and takes up 685,000 square feet on five floors of the former tire plant, is now one of the largest custom rubber-mixing plants in the country. In 1992, American Phoenix bought equipment from the closed tire plant and now provides rubber to other manufacturers in various industries.
Other businesses in the former tire plant include Goldstar Tech, which occupies about 65,000-square-feet and sells refurbished and overstocked electronics. Then there’s the storage company that occupies 370,000-square-feet and has a daycare, dog-training center, fire-extinguisher company, 300 self-storage units and Dynamic Fabrication & Finishing, a company specializing in custom metal fabrication.”
Named after a mixer used in the manufacture of rubber, Banbury Place is the brain child of Jack Kaiser and his now late father, Bill Cigan. The duo, who had specialized in redevelopment projects, only at a much smaller scale, bought the property in 1992 shortly after tire production ceased there.
That was nearly 80 years after the plant had opened as the Gillette Safety Tire Co. In 1942 and 1943, following its purchase by U.S. Rubber, the plant was used by the U.S. government to make ammunition. At its peak, it employed about 6,200 workers, 61% of whom were women. Tire production resumed in 1944. By 1947, the 4,400 employees there were cranking out 20,000 tires a day. In 1965, the factory was the third largest tire plant in the country. A mere two years later, all of U.S. Rubber’s subsidiaries would be combined to form Uniroyal. The company merged with B.F. Goodrich in 1986 and then was purchased in 1990 by Michelin Group. A year later, Michelin announced it was closing the plant and consolidating its operations in Indiana and Alabama.
Kaiser, then 35, and Cigan, had gone to Akron, Ohio, to tour a former Goodrich tire factory that, in the late 1980s, had been turned into incubator space. That outing gave them the confidence they needed to plunge forward with the purchase of the closed Eau Claire factory.
“My dad and I pretty much said that if they can do this in Akron, Ohio, we can do this in Eau Claire, Wisconsin,” said Kaiser, now 62. “They were doing what we envisioned, multiple tenants, different types of business and things like that. And that got us over the hump to try this.”
One of the most vibrant and colorful places in the complex is building 13, which had been used as a hardware warehouse and parts facility for the tire plant. It’s now home to studios for a wide range of artists, a coffee shop, art gallery and Forage, an event space and commercial kitchen that opened in 2016.
A museum telling the history of the property opened in May on the building’s first floor.
“I think people just don’t know what Banbury is about,” said Kristen Dexter, co-owner of Forage. “So we’re thrilled about the museum and I feel like its going to bring people in and help them understand what a jewel this building is and what a jewel the history is.”
Across town, a similar project is advancing in a former International Truck repair shop. The 33,000-square-foot Artisan Forge Collective was devised by Greg Johnson, a metal artist and fabricator, in 2015. The building is home to 51 artists, a coffee shop and hair salon. Johnson’s main idea was to provide studio and gallery space to artists. He also has plans to more than double the size of his business by adding a larger industrial space and housing with studio space for artists.
“The idea is that we’re creating a central cultural art mecca in Eau Claire,” Johnson said. “I don’t really compare myself to Banbury. I love those guys down there and they’re trying really hard to do some really cool things. They’ve got some real strengths and it’s kind of a neat place. There’s some history there but they’ve got their limitations as do we. I work very closely with them. I don’t see them as a threat I see them as an opportunity.”
Justin Vernon, the main force behind the popular band Bon Iver, is meanwhile part of the ownership group of the Oxbow Hotel, a former dilapidated property that has been turned into a $4 million, 32-room boutique hotel that features sleek fixtures, record players in each room and a vinyl library in the lobby. The hotel’s restaurant, The Lakely, serves up craft cocktails and presents live jazz.
The Oxbow was bought by the current owners in 2013 and opened in 2016. The main building itself dates to 1947, when it was the Edwards Hotel. A motel wing was added in 1961, and the hotel later became known as the Green Tree Inn.
By the time of the Oxbow project, it had become an eyesore that added to the downtown’s blight.
“They wanted to showcase the local area and all the cool stuff that was happening and that they knew what was coming down the pipeline,” Berg said. “Everything in here has some crazy story usually starting with a local crafts person.”
Tables, the bar, stools, front desk, a coffee table in the lobby and the headboards in the hotel’s rooms were all built by a local woodworker. Custom upholstery work was done locally, as was the lighting in the bar and restaurant. Signs on each hotel room door and logos on the front windows of the lobby were hand painted by a local artisan.
“It’s like every detail is from some local craftsperson who has their stamp on things,” Berg said. “They really wanted a place that really showed off Eau Claire.”
A similar approach was taken about five years ago with a $20 million conversion of the former Ramada Inn & Convention Center, which closed in 2013. The property was recently re-opened as the Lismore Hotel, a Double Tree Hotel by Hilton. It now has 14,000 square feet of meeting space. What once was a pool on its second floor has been turned into Dive, a bar with an outdoor deck. The 112-room hotel also has a coffee shop and a first-floor bar and restaurant. Its location puts it within walking distance of the farmers’ market, children’s museum, Phoenix Park, the Pablo Center and more than a dozen restaurants.
The Jamf offices are also in Phoenix Park, as is the 100,000-square-foot corporate headquarters for Royal Credit Union, an operation was founded in a tiny office at the Uniroyal plant in 1964. The credit union now has 200,000 members and assets worth $1.5 billion. It’s helping to promote development by encouraging building owners to turn their properties into small spaces for small businesses.
“So they can bring pop ups in and give businesses an opportunity in spaces that have been empty. It’s just a new concept because that’s who is here” said Vicki Hoehn, the credit union’s vice president of engagement. “There’s a lot of young entrepreneurs who are starting up businesses.”