Eau Claire, Wisconsin, USA
Communities with clear vision
In the city of Eau Claire in Wisconsin, USA, a community visioning and strategic
planning process is currently giving citizens new opportunities to participate in
decision-making in their communities. This case study describes how a coalition of
government and non-profit organisations, led by the city of Eau Claire, worked with
a broad cross section of community members to develop a vision and strategic plan
for the area and to find solutions to the challenging problems they face at a time of
rapid change and budget constraints. Mike Huggins is City Manager of Eau Claire.
Eau Claire is a city of 66,000 people and serves as the regional economic centre for 12 counties in
western Wisconsin, USA. The city is located in Eau Claire County, which has a total population of
95,000. Eau Claire County includes 15 separate local municipal government organisations, 12 distinct
school districts and 3 special lake districts. The greater Eau Claire community, including much of the
County population, is confronting a daunting set of choices about future investments in critical public
and civic facilities and services.
Decisions facing citizens and local governments are complex, interconnected and go far beyond the
capacities of any single government jurisdiction or community organisation. City government alone
has lost over $4 million annually in state shared revenue funding since 1995. Similar decreases have
been experienced by county government and the area school district. In 1995, 48% of local
government revenues came from state shared revenue, and 26% from local property tax. In 2008,
25% of local revenues came from state revenues and 49% from local property tax. At the same time
the state has limited the total growth of local government expenditures to an average of 2%.
Given local contractual obligations for annual cost of living increases, greatly increased fuel and energy
costs and double-digit increases in annual health care costs (in 2007 the City confronted a 56%
increase in projected health costs), local governments have eliminated jobs and reduced public services
and maintenance. They have increased classroom size and reduced funding support for non-profit
community agencies such as the museum, arts organisations, seniors centre and low-income housing
and social services.
During the same period the greater Eau Claire area has also continued to experience physical
development and a growing, more socially and economically diverse population. In addition, the
combined public facility infrastructure needs for schools, arts facilities, libraries, courthouse and jail,
sewer plant, and community centres exceed $400 million in construction costs.
Dean Schultz, co-chair of the economic development work group, presents preliminary group results on identifying community priorities for economic development.
What happened and the funding organisations contracted The Clear Vision process is unique in
with the National Civic League (NCL) many ways:
why was it significant?
from Denver, Colorado to facilitate the
community planning process. The NCL • The many disparate local
In March 2007 an informal meeting
is a 100 years+ non-profit organisation government organisations and
of government and non-profit
devoted to increased participatory community organisations have never
organisation leaders was convened
citizenship and civic infrastructure in joined in an inclusive citizen-based
to discuss pressing challenges for
local communities in the US. Working collaborative effort to identify
community services and facilities.
with a NCL project facilitator, the initial common needs and priorities.
The result was an ad hoc coalition
group of convenors recruited a 15 Community planning efforts are
committed to implementing an
member Initiating Committee which typically conducted by a
inclusive problem-solving approach
included some of the initial convening government agency as a formal
to community planning. This group
leaders as well as eight additional decision-making process ultimately
secured $40,000 in funding from the
citizens reflecting the geographic accountable to a single government
City of Eau Claire, Eau Claire County,
and social-economic diversity of authority.
Chamber of Commerce, a local
charitable organisation United Way,
• Usually in governmental planning
Eau Claire Area Foundation, University
In the second step of the planning processes, citizens provide input at
of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and the
process, leadership responsibility designated times. In the Clear
Chippewa Valley Technical College.
shifted to the Initiating Committee Vision process, citizens are actively
They then contracted the National
who planned the year long community engaged in designing and
Civic League to facilitate the planning
process. They created the work conducting the process, determining
process combining both large
committees to support the process and the format and substance of
community planning meetings with
identified 500 Eau Claire community recommendations, writing the
small focused work groups to develop
members to be invited to participate as final report and determining the
a clear set of community priorities,
stakeholders. The initial list of potential implementation strategies.
implementation strategies and
stakeholders was selected to reflect
a cross-section of the diversity of the • The recruitment of citizens in this
community by gender, age, geographic way is unique; many of them had
The subsequent ‘Clear Vision Eau
location, race, employment and never before participated in public
Claire’ community visioning process
income. The Initiating Committee made policy discussions and came as
was designed to bring all sectors of the
particular efforts to recruit participants individuals rather than
community together to create a broad
from under-represented groups representatives of organisations
community vision and strategic plan,
especially from low income and or government agencies
aimed at building a reinvigorated sense
minority ethnic groups. The expanded
of community purpose with clear
recruitment efforts included meeting • Participants who reflected the
community priorities for the future.
directly with members of the Hmong diversity of the Eau Claire
The ‘Clear Vision’ process did not
community (a large minority Asian community in terms of gender,
replace the formal planning, decision-
ethnic group in Eau Claire), African- age, racial/ethnic background,
making and budgeting processes of the
American leaders and local trade and economic interests were
city, county, and school governments
unions. While the outcome was not actively recruited.
but strengthened the community’s civic
a perfect representation of Eau Claire,
capacity for effective collaboration by • There is an emphasis on integrating
with more women than men and fewer
providing an integrated and coherent the perspectives of traditional
people from low income groups, it was
community perspective essential for decision-making organisations
an extremely diverse group of people.
effective coordination between (government, business) with citizen
government agencies. participation.
The large public meetings were held
every three to four weeks with
The initial planning phase centred on • Large group processes and small
participants seated around small
10 community meetings held at a local group discussions have been
discussion tables to encourage
church. While the planning meetings integrated to facilitate active
everyone to speak. The initial planning
were open to the general public, a participation.
phase concludes in June 2008 with
core group of 150 citizens provided
a report written by the citizens
a consistent core of participants. Regardless of the final outcomes,
themselves identifying priorities in six
This group was recruited to broadly simply getting the Clear Vision process
important community areas: community
represent the ethnic, geographic, age, underway is a significant community
collaboration / partnerships, education,
gender, and occupational status of the achievement. Eau Claire has many
health care, transportation, quality of
community. They included government different levels of government, all with
life and economic development. The
officials, representatives of community similar tax systems and all providing
goal is to identify ‘trend-benders’ –
non-profit organisations, business, services to the same community, but
strategic actions that will dramatically
neighbourhood activists, students, they rarely ever met. Churches and
change the rate and direction of
and retirees. not-for-profit organisations also
community change and effectiveness.
tended to work in isolation. Yet issues
These participants were recruited affecting Eau Claire such as cuts to
through a two step planning process. public expenditure impact on services in
First the initial group of leaders from all areas and affect all of these groups
as well as cutting across the different Gender and race was fairly easy. generate a lot of energy. That is how
levels of government. It is significant Identifying a general occupation the original ad hoc planning group
therefore that despite the limited was possible, income was not. While was started.
resources that government and other recruiting a mix of generations was
organisations are faced with, there was critical, actually going beyond ‘youth, 2. Well planned, well-facilitated
a great willingness to provide funds for middle age, and old’ was difficult. meetings can accomplish
this visioning process. It was as if the many things.
idea of having a broader conversation 3. Retaining participants after Much can be achieved if the
about Eau Claire seemed to resonate the initial two meetings was meetings are designed well and
with all groups and this in itself was challenging. there is a genuine commitment to hear
an achievement. Many participants wanted to move the views of citizens themselves. The
quickly to identifying solutions most effective community meetings
without working through a thorough combined succinct presentation of
What were the assessment of community needs information in a large group setting,
which required continued commitment with small group (5-10 participants)
over time. discussions to ensure that everyone
1. Securing joint funding from felt able to talk and participate.
4. Efforts to communicate through
government and community
a project website and email were 3. Creating public space for
not completely successful. citizens is important.
The challenge was getting
This was largely due to the difficulty of Places such as community public
organisations to contribute funds
working across three or four different meetings – where citizens can assess
during a time of reduced funding for
agencies and working with volunteers. and discuss important community
most of the organisations and when
There was often not the time or skills issues – are vital to the process.
none had been previously budgeted.
to check that information was correct Creating an environment which is
It was also difficult to find a neutral
and up-to-date. accessible and where citizens feel
non-government organisation (the
Eau Claire Area Foundation) to comfortable can in itself help to
manage the project contract. facilitate discussion.
What were the lessons?
2. Recruiting a diverse and inclusive 4. Blend citizen passion with
core group of citizens. 1. Never under-estimate the power technical knowledge and expertise.
Identifying a potential list of over of convening a public meeting. Creating issue focused work groups
500 citizens reflecting community Simply inviting citizens to come helps move the process onto the next
characteristics of age, gender, ethnicity, together and talk about common stage and starts creating solutions for
income, neighbourhood was difficult. problems and possible actions can the identified problems.
Thank you to Megan Donnelly and Laura Cornish for their assistance with researching, writing and editing. April 2008.