How Eau Claire’s retail economy has evolved over time

Eau Claire (WQOW) – If you’ve lived in Eau Claire for more than 10 years, you’ve have probably seen a shift in where you shop. Recently, Sears Holdings operation has announced 46 of its unprofitable stores will be closing. One of the closing Sears locations is Eau Claire’s Oakwood Mall. 

News 18 spoke with Carrie Ronnander, a Historian and Director of the Chippewa Valley Museum, about Eau Claire’s retail history. Ronnander said retail was always centered downtown simply because that’s where people lived.  Back in the 1900s, people walked by foot or rode horses to get around or shop.

Ronnander said as soon as every household had a car, stores started to spread out to areas like south of I-94. The land outside downtown Eau Claire was cheaper, and businesses were able to expand, which then resulted in malls. The London Square Mall was first introduced back in 1971, and then the Oakwood Mall in the early 80s.

To date, retail downtown seems to be thriving again, which Ronnander believes will continue as long as parking is easy and accessible. "In order to have lots of vibrant retail opportunities in downtown you have to have people have a perception that people can park downtown, which I think a lot of people have, but it’s also just a change of mindset as well," said Ronnander.

Ronnander said what’s interesting to her is how much downtown has changed: she said in the early 1900s, there weren’t any large national department stores, those showed up in the 30s and 40s.

From an economic standpoint, Thomas Kemp, Professor and Chair of the Economic Department at University of Eau Claire, said retail is an important part of Eau Claire’s economy.

Kemp said Eau Claire is and will continue to be a retail hub for this region, and spending in Eau Claire versus the surrounding counties is higher. Kemp also said there is not one clear answer as to whether malls will survive locally or nationally. 

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