Biz Blog: Eau Claire’s downtown renaissance has ties to home-grown tech firm

Community investment helps attract employees

Tom Still
Tom Still

Zach Halmstad jokingly describes his foray into three development projects in downtown Eau Claire as “an accident.”

If so, it was a very fortunate accident for this city of 65,000 centered along the banks of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers.

Halmstad is the co-founder of JAMF Software, which provides information management tools for major enterprises – companies, schools and governments – that use Apple products such as Mac, iPad and IPhone devices. From its basement beginnings in 2002, JAMF has grown into a company of 600 employees spread among eight offices worldwide, including about 200 in a riverfront office in Eau Claire.

He’s also a hometown guy who decided to stay put and give back to the community he believes has been a source of JAMF’s success.

In addition to JAMF’s Eau Claire building, which captures a Silicon Valley techie feel with distinct Wisconsin twists, Halmstad has invested in three other projects that are turning a once-tired downtown into a destination spot for northwest Wisconsin.

Chief among them is the Confluence Arts Center, so named for its location near the confluence of Eau Claire’s major rivers. It’s a $45 million performing arts and civic center funded so far by a mix of state, local and private dollars, including a reported $500,000 from JAMF. A groundbreaking was held Oct. 6 and construction will begin later this fall with an anticipated completion date sometime in 2018.

Its effect on Eau Claire’s downtown is already being felt through redevelopment of older buildings and other plans that will attract people and dollars.

They include the 112-room Lismore Hotel and the 30-room Oxbow Hotel, two downtown properties tied to Halmstad and other investors, including Grammy Award-winning musician Justin Vernon, also an Eau Claire native.

“We can pay people a great salary at JAMF, but it’s not the only thing that attracts people.” Halmstad said. “People want to move to a city that they want to actually live in.”

Halmstad’s live-work-play philosophy is not unique to today’s Wisconsin entrepreneurs.

In La Crosse, Don Weber and Logistics Health Inc. have invested heavily in that’s city lakefront, once an eyesore and now a magnet for visitors and other companies.

In Beloit, the contributions and investments of Hendricks family – founders of ABC Supply – are bringing new vitality to that downtown and beyond.

In Madison, the contributions and investments of Pleasant Rowland (American Girl and other ventures) and Jerry Frautschi, who hails from a family of entrepreneur, led to the construction of the Overture Center; the rebirth of the Edgewater hotel; and the overall transformation of the 100 block of State Street.

Halmstad grew up in Eau Claire and wants to give back to his home town, but he’s also motivated by enlightened self-interest. A more vibrant Eau Claire makes it easier for him to attract the talent he needs to fuel JAMF’s growth.

Speaking to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, which met Oct. 6-7 at UW-Eau Claire, Halmstad described how he was warned repeatedly in the early 2000s that JAMF would never be able to find the talent it needs in the Chippewa Valley.

Instead, he said, JAMF has attracted a workforce that includes an expected mix of computational and software experts – but also plenty of people who earned degrees in German, geography, economics, Biblical studies, history, English literature, sociology and much more.

In fact, Halmstad told the Regents, the Eau Claire workforce for JAMF includes people who hold at least 65 different bachelor’s degrees. For that reason, he added, JAMF is a prime example of why a liberal arts college education remains vital in today’s world.

“There’s no institution in the world that could train people to work at JAMF,” he said, because most of the technical training must take place in-house after talented people are hired. “What we need are smart people who are ready to learn and to adapt.”

Throughout its history, Wisconsin has been shaped by entrepreneurs whose names are still reflected in the companies and even they cities they founded. Today’s crop is hewing to that tradition.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

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