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UW-Eau Claire moving forward with plans for event complex

Five years after unveiling plans for a major event and recreation center, UW-Eau Claire officials plan to begin moving dirt this month.

Preparation of the 21-acre site along Menomonie Street will pave the way for construction of the planned 244,000-square-foot Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex to begin next summer, Chancellor James Schmidt told the Leader-Telegram on Tuesday. The land was part of a $10 million donation to Blugold Real Estate Foundation in 2014 by UW-Eau Claire alumni John and Carolyn Sonnentag, owners of the County Materials Corp. plant that previously occupied the site.

Plans call for the proposed $90 million to $100 million 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. The ownership model would be a public-private partnership, much like at the Pablo Center at the Confluence, which opened downtown in 2018.

“Like Pablo, we all get something more than we would have gotten if we’d done it alone,” Schmidt said.

The 97,000-square-foot UW-Eau Claire event facility, which would host Blugolds men’s and women’s basketball games and other large gatherings, is envisioned to have a seating capacity of 4,100, which is 20 percent more than the 3,400 maximum at Zorn Arena but significantly smaller than the target of 7,500 to 8,000 people discussed when the concept was first announced in August 2014.

The capacity would be about 3,300 for a sporting event without the 800 seats that can be placed on the main floor.

The scaled-down vision is the result of the “painful” process of assessing needs and ensuring the complex is affordable to build and operate, Schmidt said, adding that officials are still working to bring costs down.

The university is aiming to fund its portion, estimated at $40 million to $45 million, completely through philanthropic donations.

“Our goal is to have 100 percent of the capital costs covered up front,” Schmidt said, expressing confidence in their ability to hit that fundraising target.

Regardless of economic factors, “People give when they’re motivated by the mission of what it’s going to accomplish,” he said.

A campus referendum is planned in April for students to vote on using student fees to pay for future operations of the university’s share of the complex.

Charlie Johnson, UW-Eau Claire student body president, said he is excited about the prospect of the Sonnentag complex because it will attract concerts and other major events as well as provide students with a state-of-the-art recreation center that will alleviate overcrowding in existing campus recreation facilities that often forces intramural games to run past midnight.

UW-Eau Claire officials are scheduled to present an update on the project Thursday to the UW System Board of Regents’ Capital Planning and Budget Committee and they hope to seek regent approval of a preliminary step in December. Schmidt said he hopes the complex is ready to open in 2022.

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.

Mayo Clinic Health System plans to offer sports medicine services and performance training in its 30,000-square-foot portion of the facility, as well as to continue to conduct research as part of its collaborative research agreement with UW-Eau Claire, said Jason Craig, regional chair of administration for the system’s northwest Wisconsin region.

“Mayo Clinic Health System looks forward to a long and successful collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, the YMCA and other community leaders to help bring Mayo Clinic expertise to help others be the very best they can be,” Craig said. “It’s exciting and a great opportunity to be part of something big in our community that can benefit the health, whether physical or emotional, of so many people at all ages and stages of life. It’s a perfect alignment of both the Mayo Clinic mission and vision.”

YMCA of the Chippewa Valley CEO Theresa Hillis could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

At this point, the proposal does not include a convention center — something that has been on the wish list of community and business leaders for decades — although vacant land is available on the site for that kind of facility potentially to be added in the future, said Mike Rindo, the university’s assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations.

“We want to be able to kind of future-proof the building in case the community wants future expansion,” Rindo said.

A feasibility report released last December on building a convention center in Eau Claire recommended that a downtown site be considered because the Sonnentag site doesn’t have the nearby restaurants, hotels and other attractions typically sought by convention planners.

The study, conducted by consulting firm Hunden Strategic Partners, indicated that a convention center and existing businesses would see more economic benefit from a downtown location. The report was commissioned by tourism marketing agency Visit Eau Claire and the city of Eau Claire.

Rindo, also president of Visit Eau Claire’s board of directors, said the board decided to look at potential downtown sites first, although he indicated university officials are confident the Sonnentag complex will spark additional development in the surrounding area.

Eau Claire City Council President Terry Weld said city officials aren’t having active discussions at this time about building a convention center.

“If we feel the community could benefit from adding on to (the Sonnentag complex), then that’s certainly an option we’d consider,” Weld said. “For now we’re looking forward to working with Mayo, the university and the YMCA on something residents will enjoy for a long, long time.”

The intent is that the event center would be rented out for athletic tournaments, concerts, commencement ceremonies and other events.

UW-Eau Claire and the YMCA would share 118,000 square feet of space in a fitness and recreation facility that will include an aquatic center where university swimming and diving teams would host meets.

Other planned Sonnentag complex features mentioned by university officials include academic space for the kinesiology program, athletic department offices, a second-floor fitness track with views of the Chippewa River, two gyms in addition to the main gymnasium used for intercollegiate basketball games and flexible design elements capable of accommodating many types of activities.

The upgraded facilities also likely would serve as a recruiting tool for athletes, Schmidt said.

Schmidt said he believes the complex will help alleviate the community’s lack of major event space. He pointed out that Zorn Arena remains the largest event space in the Chippewa Valley and said the university doesn’t have enough vacant land to build its replacement on campus.

“Our problem is we’re landlocked, so this was absolutely the ideal space for this to be located,” Schmidt said, noting that the Menomonie Street site is close to where many off-campus students live and only about a mile from upper campus.

Located next to Hobbs Ice Arena, across the street from the John & Fay Menard YMCA Tennis Center and near the west entrance to Carson Park, the site offers potential to become a recreational hub for the Chippewa Valley, he said.

City goes back to old winter parking rules

Eau Claire motorists will need to pay close attention to which side of the street they park their cars at night, starting on Nov. 1.

Expecting it will improve safety in wintertime, the city has switched back to its old alternate-side parking rules that require people to only park along one side of streets from midnight to 7 a.m. for six months of the year.

“As a City Council, we need to keep this community safe,” Councilman John Lor said.

Changing the winter parking rules will allow plows to better clear snow off streets to their full width, ensuring that firetrucks and ambulances will be able to get to people’s homes when there’s an emergency, he said.

The council voted 8-1 — council members Laura Benjamin and David Klinkhammer were absent — during its Tuesday afternoon meeting to revert back to winter parking rules that had been in place until the city changed them in fall 2015.

Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle voted four years ago for the policy of only requiring alternate-side parking after snowstorms because she said it seemed like common sense at the time. But in practice, she said, people appeared to have trouble following the rules because they were not always in effect.

“What overrides common sense is human nature,” she said.

Among the reasons to change back, Emmanuelle said, is to prevent plow drivers from having to work numerous weeks without days off — as was the case during last winter’s record-setting snowfall.

Last winter’s brutal snowstorms exacerbated issues that had cropped up in prior years that were tied to the parking policy, according to a staff report that supported the change. In addition to its snow plow drivers, firefighters and police officers, the city also got support for the change from UW-Eau Claire and neighborhood associations near its campus.

Councilwoman Emily Berge reached out to neighborhood associations in the north side district she represents and said the majority of people she spoke with favored consistent winter parking rules.

While some enjoyed the convenience of only moving their cars around snowstorms, she said most found the rules too confusing.

“It wasn’t clear enough of when to park where,” she said.

Councilman Andrew Werthmann cast the lone opposing vote on Tuesday, citing how residents had complained in the past when alternate-side parking was enforced six months each year, even when there was no snow on the ground.

“My biggest concern this evening is we changed the law only four years ago for a reason,” he said Tuesday. “That reason was we were getting so many people contacting us on what they saw as unnecessary ticketing.”

Werthmann has said he feels the fines are unfair as they apply to people in older neighborhoods where they regularly park on the street as their homes don’t have garages or large driveways, which can include areas where low-income families live.

Though he didn’t introduce it on Tuesday, Werthmann said he is working on a proposal to lower city parking fines related to alternate-side parking.

Councilwoman Kate Beaton recalled getting a $30 alternate-side parking fine several years ago while she was a student at UW-Eau Claire and regularly parked on the street.

“It did cut into my grocery money for that month,” she said of the fine.

But last winter with the roads in her neighborhood congested with tall and wide snowbanks and cars parked on both sides, she found it difficult to safely get to her driveway.

“I live in a neighborhood that had clogged streets for an entire month,” she said.

City tax bill to rise slightly next year

Paying for Eau Claire city government is going to cost about $23 more for the average homeowner next year, based on a proposal for the 2020 city budget.

The city’s portion of the property tax bill on a $174,000 house will rise to $1,422 under next year’s spending plan proposed by City Manager Dale Peters.

“This is a budget that was a challenge,” Peters said.

In mid-August, city leaders announced they were facing a nearly $1 million shortfall in the first steps of developing their budget. A combination of revenue estimates coming in better than initially expected and department directors taking a hard look at places to cut in their budgets got that gap down to $0.

“It’s possible because the department directors made this possible,” Peters said during a Tuesday evening budget work session with the City Council.

Despite the challenge to make a balanced budget, Councilwoman Kate Beaton noted that it does push forward a few initiatives, including affordable housing and neighborhood engagement.

“A lot of the things we’ve been talking about are in this new budget,” she said.

All neighborhood associations — Eau Claire has recently seen an increase in them, currently with 15 active ones — will be able to each get $200 from the city under the new budget.

An associate planner position created through the proposed budget would allow more neighborhood outreach and increase the city’s efforts to encourage more affordable housing in Eau Claire.

In addition to the new planner, the proposed 2020 budget includes a new application specialist in the city’s Information Technology Department. However, both positions will start midway through 2020 and part of the funding for them comes from a vacant accountant position that won’t be filled.

“We were able to fund some of our needs but there were many other needs we were not able to fund,” finance director Jay Winzenz said of the proposed budget.

He then showed a list of requests city departments had for more workers, namely firefighters, streets division employees, police officers, additional IT positions and a surveyor.

Councilwoman Jill Christopherson noted the operations budget is hamstrung by state-imposed limits on property tax increases, but city capital projects — new roads, buildings and other amenities — aren’t subject to the same strict controls.

So while the city can build new facilities, it has a much tougher time putting money in its budget for new employees as the city continues to grow.

“I’m disappointed we can’t fund important staff positions,” she said.

The council is scheduled to meet again on Oct. 15, 22 and, if needed, 29, to further discuss Peters’ budget proposal.

Public hearings on the proposed budget will be held on Oct. 21 and Nov. 11.

The council is scheduled to vote on Nov. 12 to approve a 2020 budget.

During summer, the council approved a plan for $61.9 million spending on capital projects next year, including the public library’s $17 million expansion and renovation project.