Eau Claire’s need for a major events center (”arena” has always been a word best avoided in this discussion) was a topic more than 30 years ago when I moved here, and as I later found out, years before that as well.
The idea never gained traction because there wasn’t enough local support to pay for such a venture at best, and downright hostility to the idea from many.
The landscape changed, figuratively and literally, in summer 2014 when UW-Eau Claire alumni John and Carolyn Sonnentag announced a donation of land and money valued at $10 million to their alma mater to be the future home of a major events center along the Chippewa River just west of Hobbs Ice Center.
That opportunity has been coupled with collaboration with the local YMCA and Mayo Clinic Health System. The plan is for those entities and UW-Eau Claire to join forces to build a 150,000-square-foot wellness, aquatics and recreation facility on a portion of the 25-acre site.
Thanks to $900,000 in state and federal grants, the site is being cleared and readied for construction. The only hang-up is how and where the university is going to get the tens of millions of dollars needed to build the events center that would hold roughly 6,000 people and replace Zorn Arena.
That, obviously, is no small detail.
Plan A took a hit recently when a proposal to fund the center’s construction with a tax on Eau Claire hotels, bars and restaurants was withdrawn. The plan needed state approval, and it fizzled soon after being floated by state Sen. Terry Moulton, R-town of Seymour. If it resurfaces, it also would need approval from the City Council and local voters in a referendum.
The plan would raise the city’s 8 percent room tax on hotels by as much as 2 percent and bump the sales tax on food and beverages between 0.25 and 0.5 percent.
My initial reaction to the plan was positive. I can’t imagine most people driving out of town to avoid paying an extra 6 cents on a $12 Friday fish fry. I also can’t imagine that a $1.50 surcharge on a $75 hotel room would send anyone scrambling for the door.
I can understand pushback by local business owners, however. The events center plan includes the possibility of a hotel and restaurant(s) nearby. So, in effect, existing business owners would help subsidize an events center that would benefit future competitors.
That, of course, ignores the greater benefit of having a major events center in our community. It would be nice to see a list of events Eau Claire might attract that now bypass our community because of the lack of such a venue.
Shelving the tax idea, for now at least, leaves a major hole in the events center budget. There really aren’t too many other places to turn.
Each UW-Eau Claire student (and/or parents) already pays $326 annually toward the debt on the Davies Center and another $235 a year to operate the facility. Overall, UW-EC students each pay $1,455 a year in fees and book rental, according to the campus website.
Asking for hundreds more per year to pay off an events center seems a bit much. Besides, the Republican-controlled Legislature is keeping an eye on the growth of student fees as an end run around efforts to control tuition increases.
As for the community at large, city of Eau Claire voters agreed via referendum in 2014 to a $5 million property tax increase to help fund the Pablo Center at the Confluence. Those same city taxpayers also provided the margin of victory for another $3.5 million in county funds toward the arts center project. Given that, any proposal to raise property taxes further to help fund an events center is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future.
The only other potential major sources of revenue would be the university foundation itself through a major appeal to alumni and other donors, or a huge donation many times greater than the Pablo group’s recent $5 million gift to the arts center.
Speaking of the arts center, many were taken aback recently when it was announced that the $47 million facility is now costing more than $60 million because certain expenses weren’t included.
Sure, building estimates can be tricky, but a 28 percent overrun announced seven months before opening night? Such a major omission doesn’t bode well for public confidence in future project estimates.
It would be unfortunate if the events center project is derailed or scaled back, but a substantial sum is needed to make it happen. And considering how long it took to raise the public and private money to build the arts center, which is still short of the new, higher estimate, the decades-old questions surrounding an events center remain.
Namely: How badly do we need it and want it, and how to pay for it?
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.