2020 will be known as the year Altoona became stronger as a community said Mayor Brendan Pratt
On Friday, April 16, the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce hosted the annual State of the City-Altoona address. The event was streamed via Perigon at WIN Technology and was presented by Mayor Brendan Pratt and City Administrator Mike Golat. Here, the two city leaders explained how Altoona overcame the uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and celebrated the city’s accomplishments in the midst of a trying year. As Altoona reflects on the past year and looks towards the future, Golat explained that they have learned “businesses, employees and citizens of The Chippewa Valley are flexible, resilient, creative, and ingenious” and look forward to additional growth and development throughout the city in the upcoming year.
Also included in the morning presentation were videos highlighting aspects of the Altoona community. You can view these videos here.
2020 began as a year with momentum
“The year 2020 will be remembered as the year of the COVID pandemic but it will also be known as the year Altoona became stronger as a community,” said Mayor Pratt. “Through all of this, we saw a community that came together.”
As Altoona concluded the year 2019 and began 2020, Golat said “going into 2020, we had amazing momentum.” Altoona had a 3.1% unemployment rate in March 2020 and was coming off a record 2019 residential development year with 182 new units. They had a $64,346,600 Total Valuation Increase from 2019 to 2020, an 8.67% increase, and celebrated the success of the first full year of operation at Solis Circle; a housing project to create homes for the homeless and low-income families. “It was a remarkable year,” Golat said, “and then, an uninvited guest showed up and all of our worlds changed.”
The COVID-19 journey
March 2020 marked the start of Altoona’s COVID-19 journey which brought much uncertainty, mandated business closures, emergency orders, new daily operational decisions, and a 14.1% unemployment rate to the city in April 2020. Golat said everyone faced similar business and personal challenges, “over this past year it felt like pushing that rock up the hill a lot of times.”
As city leaders navigated the uncertainties of COVID-19, their priority was to make sure Altoona citizens, customers, families, and employees remained safe. At the same time, they strove to continue providing critical products and services such as police and fire services as well as services such as plowing the roads. The daily lives of employees and children also had to be accommodated as people began working from home and schools moved online. There were also budget challenges on both revenue and expenditures sides. “There were winners and losers in this over the past year, but without exception, everyone had to take a close look at their budgets,” Golat said. In response to the financial challenges placed on the city, Altoona set up accounting for COVID-19 related revenues and expenses, managed the budget in light of added expenses and lower revenues, and took advantage of available funding opportunities and lower interest rates.
Maintaining effective public communication and engagement was also important. As guidelines on how to stay safe were continually updated and improved, it was important to stay connected with partners and members of the community. “When things get really difficult, it’s time to communicate more than ever with your customers, and in our case, it’s the citizens.”
Despite all the challenges brought on by COVID-19, work still remained. Altoona remained focused on its strategic priorities including facilitating thoughtfully planned housing and commercial development. While 2019 was a record year for housing starts, 2020 ended up breaking this record and saw over 260 new residential units constructed. This success did not come without its challenges, however, “one thing we found out, very clearly, is what thoughtfully planned housing and commercial development is. It’s not objective. It is very subjective” Golat explained. The Lake road condo/townhouse project took a lot of time for the city this past year, but Golat is confident the city will continue to work through it. Additional city housing projects included the Prairie View Ridge Project, Hillcrest Phase 2 and In-fill Multi-family Housing. Commercial development remained strong, and the city is also looking forward to a new pub opening up in June or July of this year on the plaza right across from River Prairie Center.
Looking to the future
Altoona continues to strategically plan for the future. The city recently hired a consultant to do a space needs analysis and will be presenting the findings to City Council next month. Altoona also bought a piece of property outside of city limits on the corner of SS and highway 12 with the intention of creating new developments similar to River Prairie and in the hopes of growing the city at some point. Quality of life also continues to be a priority as the city updates its Parks, Recreation & Trails Master Plan to invest in current and future city recreational facilities.
“We also were able, given the strong growth in 2019, to hire some additional personnel which was highly needed,” Golat said. Going into 2021, the city was able to budget for six new employees. Three in the fire department, one in the police department, one in public works, and Golat’s favorite new employee, their therapy dog Donut.
Reflecting on the past year
Golat explained that this past year, Altoona has learned that “businesses, employees and citizens of the Chippewa Valley are flexible, resilient, creative, and ingenious”. The city has also seen the Chippewa Valley set the standard for collaboration as people from various business interests have all come together to work on economic recovery. “No one else is doing this, guys. This is unique to the Chippewa Valley,” Golat said.
Looking forward to the upcoming year, Golat said “2021 is a new year with new opportunities” and will see much more planning and additional growth and development. Altoona plans to invest more into more quality of life amenities and looks forward to their first-year operating The Fish House, the city’s new recreation center. The city is also excited to finally go back to safely having fun with more programming and events.
Golat concluded the morning presentation by presenting two awards. The Altoona's Got Heart Award was given to Dave Burg "for embodying the Altoona Spirit by dedicating time, vision, and selfless leadership in representing the hospitality industry in the Chippewa Valley Economic Recovery Task Force." The Extra Mile Community Partnership Award was given to the Eau Claire City-County Health Department Staff "for providing thoughtful, compassionate, and courageous leadership in your efforts to keep our citizens safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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City of Altoona
Posted by Grace Hanson, Governmental Affairs Intern
Eau Claire Chamber
The Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce has more than 1,200 members.