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Report doubts Sonnentag site for convention center

A feasibility report on building a convention center in Eau Claire recommends that a downtown site be considered, though officials have so far been looking to include it with a planned UW-Eau Claire development.

The 173-page consultant’s report stated that the university’s planned Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex on Menomonie Street doesn’t have the nearby restaurants, hotels and other attractions that are sought-after by conventions.

“The proposed site of the convention center by the UWEC Event Center is not the most ideal site for a major investment of this kind,” stated the report from Hunden Strategic Partners.

Leaders of the two organizations that commissioned the study — local convention and visitor’s bureau Visit Eau Claire and Eau Claire city government — digested the report’s findings as it was circulated Thursday.

Visit Eau Claire executive director Linda John said the report’s recommendations will lead the visitor’s bureau to consider other locations for a convention center — though not ruling out the Sonnentag site.

“Access to tourism-related businesses was a concern, as well as walkability,” she said of amenities sought by conventioneers.

Convention planners often want two to three hotels nearby as well as multiple restaurants and shops in easy walking distance and other things for attendees to do while they’re in town, according to the report.

“The site of a convention center within a community is often the most important element to its success,” the report stated.

Downtown already has a couple of hotels, numerous restaurants and shops, parks, the Pablo Center at the Confluence and other cultural attractions. The Menomonie Street site does have easy access to highways, but it doesn’t have a nearby hotel, and there are only a couple of restaurants nearby.

Visit Eau Claire will now do its due diligence to weigh the pros and cons of the different possible sites, said Mike Rindo, chairman of the visitor bureau’s board of directors.

Downtown has the advantage of walkability, he noted, but the Sonnentag site does have land available. Rindo added there are many other subtle factors that will be weighed in ongoing discussions about a convention center location.

Rindo, who is UW-Eau Claire’s assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations, said the university has indicated it is open to any number of ideas for the Sonnentag project. As it’s now planned, the complex would include an events center that would replace the university’s Zorn Arena, and it would also have a recreation and wellness facility as part of its partnership with the Eau Claire YMCA and Mayo Clinic Health System.

City Council acting President Andrew Werthmann said he’s interested in getting feedback and ideas from residents about the prospect of building a convention center.

“We have to be open to exploring all those different opportunities,” he said.

While Visit Eau Claire is leading the discussion on a convention center, exactly who would build and run one is not yet known.

“It would take at least a public-private partnership,” John said.

She noted that these facilities usually run at losses, but they are intended to spur economic activity in a community.

Though it found faults with the location, the consultants did still consider how a convention center would work as part of the Sonnentag project. The report concluded that to meet space needs of larger conventions, the 4,500-seat event center planned by the university would need to grow by about 2,000 seats. This also would add about $10 million to an existing estimate of $64 million for the event center.

The center would run an annual deficit at about $600,000, based on the consultant’s projections. But it would be expected to bring $45 million to Eau Claire in the next decade in both direct and indirect economic impacts.

What the consultants recommended though is building a 117,000-square-foot convention center with an estimated cost of $49.9 million. The building would include a 30,000-square-foot convention hall, 15,000-squre-foot ballroom and 8,000-square-feet for other meeting rooms.

While this model would still run an annual operating loss of around $250,000, it would be expected to bring in $199 million in economic benefits to the area in a decade.

For either option, the consultants recommended that an attached hotel with 200 rooms also be part of the plans, as well as parking for more than 500 vehicles.

Building a convention center in Eau Claire has been discussion that’s been simmering for years.

“This is an issue Visit Eau Claire has been dealing with for decades now,” John said, citing a study from 20 years ago.

Eau Claire does have facilities that can accommodate many vendor booths — the Chippewa Valley Expo Center and L.E. Phillips YMCA Sports Center — and those with large banquet rooms — The Florian Gardens and UW-Eau Claire’s Davies Center — but no one facility with all amenities under one roof with enough square footage and hotel rooms to accommodate big conventions.

“We turn down a lot of events and groups because we can’t host them,” Werthmann said.

The report states that a convention center could bring about 250 events to Eau Claire, including conventions, trade and consumer shows, entertainment events, corporate gatherings, banquets and large meetings.


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Caps & Gowns: UW-Stout — Go-getter has the touch of success

The program director for applied social science at UW-Stout believes Amber Georgakopoulos will be a success at anything that comes her way.

Georgakopoulos is a mother, has been a part-time business owner or worked full time while going to college, conducted significant independent research and is actively involved in the Menomonie community, Tina Lee said.

“And she did all of those things extremely well,” Lee said.

“She understands people and works well with people. She understands what makes communities work and not work,” Lee said.

“I’ve never seen (Georgakopoulos) not be good at anything she touches. She’s absolutely amazing,” Lee said. “Whatever community she ends up in, she’s going to make it a good place. We were lucky to have her.”

Georgakopoulos, 39, of Menomonie, will be one of 763 UW-Stout students graduating Saturday at Johnson Fieldhouse.

A total of 627 undergraduates and 136 graduate students will receive degrees in 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. ceremonies.

The 9:30 a.m. ceremony will be for graduates from the College of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Management; and the Graduate School.

The 2 p.m. ceremony will be for graduates from the College of Education, Hospitality, Health and Human Sciences; the College of Arts, Communication, Humanities and Social Sciences; and the Graduate School.

Georgakopoulos grew up in Boyceville, and after graduating from high school decided to explore the country.

She lived and held various jobs in Boston and Colorado. She also worked at youth hostels on the West Coast.

“It was pretty amazing,” Goergakopoulos said. “I got to meet a lot of super cool people and hold random jobs. It was really amazing.”

But, in the back of her mind, Georgakopoulos knew she eventually wanted to pursue higher education.

“It just took me 20 years to figure that out,” she said.

Georgakopoulos moved to Menomonie with her children, Fiona, 10, and Tallulah, 6, bought a house on Tainter Lake, worked at bars and restaurants, and pursued a bachelor’s degree from UW-Stout.

Georgakopoulos majored in applied social science with concentrations in sociology and anthropology. She also completed a self-designed humanities minor.

She continuously took classes in the fall and spring semesters, and during winter and summer breaks. She graduated in 2½ years.

“I got done really quickly,” Georgakopoulos said. “It was really intense. I think I will sleep for most of January.”

While at UW-Stout, Georgakopoulos participated in LAKES REU, a National Science Foundation program that centered on intensive research.

Her research focused on lakes and water quality, comparing communities and their perceptions of water quality.

Georgakopoulos also participated in UW-Stout’s Honor College, which offers extra classes, field trips and speakers for higher achieving and curious students, said Chris Ferguson, director of the Honor College.

Many nontraditional students don’t participate in the Honor College because of the extra work and commitment, he said.

“She’s raising two young daughters and still wanted to get the most out of college,” Ferguson said . “She really embraced getting the most out of all of her college experiences.

“She’s curious about everything and passionate about trying to make the world a better place and the community a better place.”

As an active member of the community, Georgakopoulos is past president and executive board member of Main Street Menomonie and vice president of the Tainter Menomin Lake Improvement Association.

She’s also working to put environmental education in schools’ current curriculum.

“It’s about doing stuff I like,” she said.

Georgakopoulos is not sure what lies ahead. She said she loves Menomonie and wants to stay invested in the community.

“I will probably take a year or two to get my feet back on the ground,” she said. “I love academia. Graduate school is definitely in the picture. Taking classes is super exciting and super stressful. That’s the same whether you’re 19 or 39.”