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YMCA seeks to raise $25 million for new facility

Tens of thousands of members have sought fitness, fun and fellowship at the Eau Claire YMCA in its 68 years on Graham Avenue, but now officials believe the time has come to offer those benefits in a modern facility just a mile or so down the Chippewa River.

The YMCA of the Chippewa Valley has begun approaching potential major donors in the quiet phase of a fundraising campaign seeking to raise $25 million to pay for its share of building a new YMCA that would be part of the planned Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex on Menomonie Street, said CEO Theresa Hillis. The public fundraising campaign is expected to launch in the spring.

“We have a wonderful old building, but she’s beginning to show her age,” Hillis said. “We’re getting ready to go into a 21st century building that will take us into the future.”

The development proposal calls for the $90 million to $100 million Sonnentag complex to include an athletics and recreation facility that would replace UW-Eau Claire’s 68-year-old Zorn Arena, a new Eau Claire YMCA and a sports medicine center operated by Mayo Clinic Health System.

UW-Eau Claire and the YMCA would share 118,000 square feet of space in a fitness and recreation facility that will include a main gym, a kids gym, two racquetball courts, a fitness center, space for aerobics and wellness classes, an indoor track, a child care area, locker rooms and an aquatic center with a family pool and a competition pool where YMCA and university swimming and diving teams would host meets.

YMCA members also would have access to two smaller gyms near the main arena in the event center, Hillis said, adding that the intent is for the new facility to be designed in a much more open, efficient and accessible way.

“I think it’s a great collaboration we’ve got going in the new facility,” she said.

Plans call for a nonprofit called Eau Claire Community Complex to design, build and own the Sonnentag facility. UW-Eau Claire, YMCA of the Chippewa Valley and Mayo Clinic Health System would lease the space they use in the complex and each hold seats on ECCC’s board of directors.

Hillis recognizes the YMCA, as a nonprofit that can’t operate with debt, faces a challenge in raising the necessary funds to start construction next summer — the goal for the entire Sonnentag project. But she expressed optimism the effort will cross the finish line in time.

“People give, and there are a lot of generous folks here,” she said. “The Y is usually built on what the community wants the Y to be.”

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt also said he believes residents will support the YMCA project.

“Their role in this community is known and loved,” Schmidt said. “People see the impact it makes for children, for everyday working people and for the senior population.”

Hillis also stressed the Eau Claire Y’s history — the city has had a YMCA for 137 years — of serving people of all ages and income levels.

“It’s a gathering place for the community,” she said. “We’re truly a snapshot of the community.”

The Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls YMCAs joined forces earlier this year to form the YMCA of the Chippewa Valley, which employs more than 950 people and serves more than 16,000 members and participants.

The intersection of college students and community members in the shared YMCA facility will be a positive experience for both groups, Schmidt predicted.

“Anything that brings our generations together — anything, frankly, that brings people together — in today’s day and age is especially important. And this facility is all about doing that.”

Haymarket Plaza flames turn on, fountains stop for season

Before shutting off Haymarket Plaza’s fountains as their inaugural season came to a close, the city switched on fire features at the downtown Eau Claire gathering spot for a test run.

Though the fountains have been spurting up from the plaza floor since early July, this was the public debut for natural-gas-fed flames atop two short semicircle walls in the city’s public gathering space outside the Pablo Center at the Confluence.

“It looked fabulous,” said David Solberg, city engineer. “It was everything we had hoped for when we were going through the design process.”

Starting at dusk Tuesday, people wandered over to the plaza for the juxtaposition of fire and water. At about 8:30 p.m., city workers shut the fountains to prepare their pipes for winter and turned off fuel to the flames for the time-being.

Scheduling for the decorative fire features is still being debated among city officials, yet to decide if they should be on regularly or only for special occasions such as festivals or around performances at the neighboring arts center.

“We’re trying to work through what is the best way to operate it,” Solberg said.

Costs of fuel and whether the city chooses to supervise the plaza while the open flames are on also will be considered.

Seeing when people regularly congregate at the plaza and special events that use the space also will influence the city’s plans for turning on the fires, Solberg said.

“We’re waiting to see how people use Haymarket Plaza and try to coordinate our operations schedule with that,” he said.

A feature of the plaza that he’s already declared a success has been the fountain, which drew visitors in the summer that ran through it to cool off in the daytime and admired the multicolored lights that illuminated the jets of water at night.

Solberg expects that when warm temperatures return next spring that the fountain will keep the same schedule of running several times day and night, but not constantly on.

“I don’t anticipate it will be on any less than it was on this year,” he said.

The fountains were turned on July 2 to the public during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the plaza.

Haymarket Plaza’s operating costs came up briefly during Tuesday evening’s 2020 budget work session at City Hall.

The plaza’s fountains are expected to use $19,500 worth of water next year, according to city finance director Jay Winzenz.

Even though the city runs the local waterworks, the state Public Service Commission requires that all water from public utilities be billed — even if the one paying it is City Hall.

“If we weren’t billing ourselves for water, that cost would be paid by all other ratepayers in the city of Eau Claire,” Winzenz explained.

Estimated costs for running the plaza’s fire features were not yet calculated and included in the proposed 2020 budget.

The plaza was designed with more paved surfaces than grass lawn and other landscaping to cut down on maintenance costs. There are no new parks maintenance positions included in next year’s draft budget, meaning that mowing grass patches in Haymarket Plaza is added onto the existing workload those workers have to tend other city parks.

While most of the features are in place, a couple more things are yet to arrive in the plaza. A sculpture specially commissioned for the plaza is anticipated to arrive there before the end of the year. Bistro tables for a seating area near the fountain also are planned for the future.

Turkey begins offensive against Kurdish fighters in Syria

AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) — Turkey launched airstrikes, fired artillery and began a ground offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria on Wednesday after U.S. troops pulled back from the area, paving the way for an assault on forces that have long been allied with the United States.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the campaign, which followed an abrupt decision Sunday by U.S. President Donald Trump that American troops would step aside to allow for the operation.

Trump’s move drew bipartisan opposition at home and represented a shift in U.S. policy that essentially abandoned the Syrian Kurdish fighters who have been America’s only allies in Syria fighting the Islamic State group. After Erdogan announced the offensive, Trump called the operation “a bad idea.”

There were signs of panic in the streets of residential areas close to the borders as civilians fled on foot, in cars and with rickshaws piled with mattresses and a few belongings.

They included people who’d fled from the Islamic State group only few years ago.

At least seven civilians and one member of the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in the Turkish bombardment, Kurdish activists and a Syria war monitor said.

Near the town of Qamishli, plumes of smoke rose from an area close to the border after activists reported an explosion nearby. By nighttime, there were fires in one of the town’s neighborhoods, apparently ignited by the shelling.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry said Turkish ground forces, joined by allied Syrian opposition forces, had moved across the border into Syria. Shortly after, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said its fighters had repelled the Turkish ground attack in Tal Abyad.

Earlier, a U.S. defense official and a Kurdish official in Syria said the SDF has suspended operations against IS militants because of the Turkish operation. The officials who confirmed the suspension spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide details on the situation.

Turkey’s campaign — in which a NATO member is raining down bombs on an area where hundreds of U.S. troops are stationed — drew immediate criticism and calls for restraint from Europe. In his statement, Trump emphasized that there are no American soldiers in the area under attack.

“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” Erdogan said in a tweet announcing what he called “Operation Peace Spring.”

He said that Turkish forces, with Ankara-backed Syrian fighters known as the Syrian National Army, had begun to eradicate what he called “the threat of terror” against Turkey.

Minutes before Erdogan’s announcement, Turkish jets began pounding suspected positions of Syrian Kurdish forces in the town of Ras al Ayn, according to Turkish media and Syrian activists. The sound of explosions could be heard in Turkey.

It was difficult to know what was hit in the first hours of the operation.

Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, said Turkish warplanes were targeting “civilian areas” in northern Syria, causing “a huge panic” in the region.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said those killed in the Turkish bombardments included two Christian Assyrians in Qamishli, a married couple and their child, a man in a village outside of the town of Tal Abyad, and a child in a village west of Qamishli.

Before Turkey’s attack, Syrian Kurdish forces that are allied with the United States warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

The Turkish operation meant to create a “safe zone” carries potential gains and risk for Turkey by getting even more deeply involved in the Syria war. It also would ignite new fighting in Syria’s 8-year-old war, potentially displacing hundreds of thousands.

A resident of Tal Abyad said one of the bombs hit an SDF office, and he fled with his wife and mother by car to Raqqa, nearly 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the south, to flee the bombing. The resident, who gave his name as Maher, said the road to Raqqa was packed with vehicles and families, some fleeing on foot “to get away from the bombing.”

“People fled and left everything behind,” he said in a text message after he reached safety.

Turkey has long threatened to attack the Kurdish fighters that Ankara considers terrorists allied with a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. Expectations of an invasion increased after Trump’s announcement Sunday, although he also threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if the Turkish push went too far.

U.S. critics said he was sacrificing an ally, the Syrian Kurdish forces, and undermining Washington’s credibility. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, told “Fox & Friends” that if Trump “follows through with this, it would be the biggest mistake of his presidency.”

Trump later said the U.S. “does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea.”

Trump said he made clear from the start of his political career that “I did not want to fight these endless, senseless wars — especially those that don’t benefit the United States. Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place — and we will hold them to this commitment.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, while noting that Turkey “has legitimate security concerns” after suffering “horrendous terrorist attacks” and hosting thousands of refugees, said the country should not “further destabilize the region” with its military action in Syria.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas condemned the offensive, saying it will “further destabilize the region and strengthen IS.” The operation also was criticized by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

The EU is paying Turkey 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) to help the country cope with almost 4 million Syrian refugees on its territory in exchange for stopping migrants leaving for Europe.

Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish presidency’s communications director, urged the international community to rally behind Ankara, which he said would take over the fight against the Islamic State group.

Turkey aimed to “neutralize” Syrian Kurdish militants in northeastern Syria and to “liberate the local population from the yoke of the armed thugs,” Altun wrote in a Washington Post column published Wednesday.

Erdogan discussed the incursion by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erdogan’s office said he told Putin the military action “will contribute to the peace and stability” and allow for a political process in Syria.

In its call for a general mobilization, the local civilian Kurdish authority known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria asked the global community to live up to its responsibilities as “a humanitarian catastrophe might befall our people.”

The Kurds also said they want the U.S.-led coalition to set up a no-fly zone in northeastern Syria to protect the civilian population from Turkish airstrikes.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish group urged Moscow to broker talks with the Syrian government in Damascus in light of the Turkish operation. The Syrian Kurdish-led administration said it is responding positively to calls from Moscow encouraging the Kurds and the Syrian government to settle their difference through talks.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry condemned Turkey’s plans, calling it a “blatant violation” of international law and vowing to repel an incursion.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Washington of playing “very dangerous games” with the Syrian Kurds, saying the U.S. first propped up the Syrian Kurdish “quasi state” in Syria and now is withdrawing support.

“Such reckless attitude to this highly sensitive subject can set fire to the entire region, and we have to avoid it at any cost,” he said in Kazakhstan.

Earlier Wednesday, three IS militants targeted the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa, once the de facto IS capital at the height of the militants’ power. An activist collective in Raqqa reported an exchange of fire and an explosion; the Observatory said two IS fighters engaged in a shootout before blowing themselves up.

IS claimed responsibility, saying one of its members killed or wounded 13 SDF members.

The SDF, which holds thousands of IS fighters in detention facilities in northeastern Syria, has warned that a Turkish incursion might lead to the resurgence of the extremists. The U.S.-allied Kurdish-led force captured the last IS area controlled by the militants in eastern Syria in March.


El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey; Mehmet Guzel in Akcakale, Turkey; Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran; Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow; and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed.