A New Civic Covenant for Eau Claire
How a Wisconsin city manager empowered his fellow citizens to reshape their physical and civic lives.
View of the Pablo Center at the Confluence, on the shores of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers
In Eau Claire, WI, a community-wide citizen movement called Clear Vision has been using the idea of public work to reshape the physical and civic character of the city.
The story began in 2007, when state funding cuts and higher energy and health-care costs led to larger school classes, less revenue for social services, and citizen distress. Eau Claire city manager Mike Huggins saw an opportunity to tap the energies of the whole community. In search of what he called a ”21st-century vision for local democracy and public problem solving centered on citizens.”
Mike brought together leaders of the Chamber of Commerce, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, United Way, faith communities, trade unions, and Eau Claire's Hmong and African-American communities, in order to define and realize it. Clear Vision, the group that emerged, became the driving force behind a $45 million performing arts center connected to a $35 million commercial and residential development project in downtown. Subsequent Clear Vision achievements include a homeless shelter, community gardens, and public art initiatives. Its success attracted partners who have helped Eau Claire launch a large-scale civic-education project. Huggins estimates almost 2,000 citizens worked across partisan and cultural divisions to build these and other common goods.
The success of Clear Vision is hard to ignore. Its ongoing and inclusive civic capacity building was recognized in 2015 with an Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Most important, Vicki Hoehn, vice president of Royal Credit Union, sees a shift in mindset in Eau Claire itself. “At the time we began … people said nothing happened because the government was too slow.” The public work of Clear Vision and its partners, Hoehn says, has “opened a lot of eyes. It’s not about relying on or blaming government. It’s about taking responsibility and ownership ourselves as citizens.”
See also Harry C. Boyte, “A New Civic Covenant,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 20, 2019.