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Minnesota-based Fleet Farm expanding to Eau Claire as part of company's growth plans

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Growing up in Osseo, Wis., gave Hugh Leasum some insight into how people travel in the Chippewa Valley to do their shopping.

"I understand the area," Mills Fleet Farm's executive vice president and chief operating officer said Monday, July 10.

That knowledge helped him see why land just south of the Highway 93 exit off Interstate 94 in Eau Claire would be a good spot for one of the retail chain's newest stores.

"It's just a good site," he said.

Next week Fleet Farm will seek rezoning approval from Eau Claire city planners before the City Council votes later this month. The company intends to start construction this fall and open the store in fall 2018.

Plans filed with the city show a 218,628-square-foot store with a decorative silo rising above the roofline. An outdoor lumberyard is wrapped around a side of the store, and a gas station with car wash is at the parking lot entrance.

Fleet Farm will take up most of the site's 42 acres, but plans show a lot will be available for a restaurant or other commercial business.

A business has not been lined up yet for the smaller property.

The Brainerd, Minn.-based chain has 37 locations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota, and with a store opening planned this fall in Monticello, Minn.

New York private investment firm KKR bought Mills Fleet Farm last year, and Leasum said the company has an aggressive growth plan.

"We hope to have a fair amount of new stores online next year at this time," he said.

The expansion plans include a distribution center already under construction in Chippewa Falls, Wis. Work that started in March on the 1.1 million-square-foot center at Lake Wissota Business Park is ahead of schedule, Leasum said. The company plans to get the building staffed in January.

The company already has one store in the area on U.S. Highway 12 West in Menomonie.

Mills Fleet Farm is a different company than Janesville-based Blain's Farm & Fleet, which has a store off Business 53 in Lake Hallie. Both carry that same type of product line, including agricultural supplies and equipment, hunting and fishing gear, housewares, automotive goods, clothing, hardware, lawn and garden supplies, power tools, paint, sporting goods and tools.

Land that Fleet Farm plans to build upon in Eau Claire had long been a sand mine and needs to be leveled before a store can go there.

Commonweal Development had been working out a deal with Eau Claire County to move sandy soil from the hilly site for the benefit of both parties. The developer had planned to transport the material to fill in clay pits in Lowes Creek County Park to improve use of that land for park patrons.

However, a site analysis conducted by Eau Claire architecture and engineering firm Ayres Associates found that since clay was harvested decades ago, portions of those pits have turned into wetlands.

Stuart Schaefer, president of Commonweal Development, said the company is still evaluating and researching various options for moving earth at the site.