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Local Habitat for Humanity gets back to building houses
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EAU CLAIRE — Brittany Risler plans to achieve a longtime goal by moving into her own house before the end of the month.

The occasion will mark a major milestone for Risler and for the nonprofit organization that is helping to make her dream come true.

After building about 40 homes in 20 years, the Chippewa Valley chapter of Habitat for Humanity fell on hard times. The charitable group had failed to build a single house in the past four years.

That changed last fall with the arrival of a new executive director, John Dawson, who promptly set about revamping the local chapter and restoring its primary mission: building houses for people in need.

Chippewa Valley Habitat plans to build four new houses and renovate another this year, Dawson said.

“My No. 1 goal is to let people know we’re back in business,” said Dawson, a former general contractor in Illinois who is using his business and construction know-how to help rebuild the local chapter.

That’s good news for Risler and her three children — Ayvah, 10, Brielle, 7, and Nolan, 5 — who have been investing so-called sweat equity to ensure they move out of their Mondovi apartment and into the newly constructed three-bedroom home on Mondovi’s east side.

“Me and my kids are really excited,” Risler said. “I’ve always wanted to buy a house and it was nice to be able to buy a home for an affordable price.”

While Dawson said a common misconception is that Habitat houses are presented to occupants free of charge, that is not the case, but they do get a good deal.

“I still have to pay a pretty big lump sum, pay a mortgage and put in the hours,” said Risler, who estimates she has spent more than 150 hours alongside volunteers and subcontractors helping to build her house.

Dawson noted that an expert is always on site to help and advise volunteers, many recruited by the future homeowner, on proper construction techniques.

“I actually helped put up drywall,” Risler said. “I never thought I’d do drywall, but I did. I also helped clean up the yard, put windows in, put doors in and I’ll be painting too. We’re kind of learning to do it all.”

Even her children have pitched in by pounding some nails and helping with cleanup.

Risler’s house, which Habitat began building in December, is the first of the group’s five building projects planned this year.

Chippewa Valley Habitat, which serves about a 30-mile radius around Eau Claire, plans to break ground soon on another house in Mondovi and then likely rehab a house in Eau Claire and build homes in Menomonie and Chippewa Falls or Altoona, Dawson said.

After the organization paused construction in recent years, its pool of volunteers and homeowner applicants dwindled, so Dawson has been working to build those back up as well. A large mailing in December generated an increase in volunteers and applications from potential partner families.

With a United Way report indicating that more than a third of Eau Claire County households either live in poverty or earn less than the cost of living, Dawson knows the need for affordable housing goes well beyond the 20 families now in line for Chippewa Valley Habitat houses.

Families apply for the assistance and go through an interview process to assess their income, need and willingness to invest the necessary sweat equity. A committee makes the final decisions.

For Dawson, a UW-Eau Claire graduate, the plan was always to work with a Habitat chapter after retiring from the construction company he founded in Illinois. His connection to Eau Claire made the Chippewa Valley role a perfect fit.

The local chapter is jumpstarting construction by shifting its funding formula, Dawson said. Instead of paying for houses and being repaid through mortgages — a process that stalled when the organization didn’t have enough money to afford to build houses — Chippewa Valley Habitat now plans to take out construction loans and have partner families make traditional mortgage payments to lenders.

The families will gain the advantage of having a loan for less than the value of the houses, and the organization will benefit by spending less to build houses than the value of the mortgages, thanks to donations and volunteer labor, Dawson said.

“Right now we just have to get our brand back,” Dawson said. “We’re quickly turning things around and implementing the best practices from the most successful Habitat chapters around the state.”

Risler, who heard about Habitat from a friend, said she’s thrilled that the organization has resumed building houses for families in the Chippewa Valley.

“I’m just really appreciative that I was given the opportunity to be part of Habitat for Humanity,” Risler said. “They are a great organization to work with.”

Habitat for Humanity International, founded in 1976, is a global nonprofit housing organization working in local communities across all 50 states in the U.S. and in about 70 countries around the world.

Green light: UW-EC students approve referendum, agree to Sonnentag fee
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EAU CLAIRE — The UW-Eau Claire student body has approved a referendum question involving the Sonnentag Centre, agreeing to pay a new segregated fee of up to $90 per student each semester to support the event complex destined for Eau Claire’s Water Street area.

The successful referendum means the long-awaited Sonnentag project will get the critical funding it needed to continue. It also paves the way for construction to begin this year, an official said Wednesday.

The Sonnentag complex is planned for land along Menomonie Street, bordered by the Chippewa River State Trail.

It’s planned to be a major event center with 5,100 seats, a fitness center, an indoor synthetic turf fieldhouse and a Mayo Clinic Health System sports medicine center and imaging clinic.

“We’re just thrilled that the students understand the need for this project ... and that they understand their investment is going to ensure we can continue to move forward with the project,” said Kimera Way, president of Eau Claire Community Complex Inc., the nonprofit entity created to serve as owner of the development.

The project’s organizers will now work on finishing the design of the Sonnentag complex. They’re looking to set “a very aggressive design and construction schedule, all geared toward starting the project before the end of the calendar year,” Way told the Leader-Telegram Wednesday.

The UW System must also give its approval for UW-Eau Claire’s participation in the Sonnentag project.

Plans for the complex began when John and Carolyn Sonnentag, who are UW-Eau Claire alumni and owners of County Materials Corp., made a $10 million-value gift, including 21 acres of their company’s land along Menomonie street in the donation.

Critical decision

If students had voted against the referendum, the current Sonnentag Centre proposal may have been scrapped.

“We knew that if the student referendum didn’t pass, that it really would create a major challenge for how the project could move forward,” Way said Wednesday.

Organizers would have had to go back to square one, Way said in March.

A total of 1,659 UW-Eau Claire students voted this week on the referendum, which asked if students were in favor of establishing the new fee. Just over 1,000 students voted yes; 640 voted no, according to unofficial election results.

The election period began Monday and ended Wednesday. Voting was held online.

The new fee of up to $90 per student per semester will pay for UW-Eau Claire to lease space in the Sonnentag facility; it will also contribute to maintenance costs for the building.

“Instead of a lot of other projects that occur on campus, where if a student fee is involved they have to fund 100% of construction — in this case, they’re funding operations and maintenance costs of a building that will be built for their benefit,” Way said. “The tremendous generosity of the Sonnentags is leveraging in ways you wouldn’t normally see.”

Notably, UW-Eau Claire students won’t start to pay the fee until the Sonnentag complex opens.

Long time coming

The Sonnentag Centre was first announced publicly in 2014, when the university announced the Sonnentags’ donation.

The development was first estimated to cost $90 million to $100 million, but a new version of the plan doesn’t include a new YMCA, which pulled out of the Sonnentag project in late 2019.

In January 2020 the city of Eau Claire made a nonbinding commitment to contribute $6 million to $8.5 million to the project.

Also involved in the Sonnentag project are UW-Eau Claire, Mayo Clinic Health System and Blugold Real Estate, a subsidiary of the university foundation.

As of now, UW-Eau Claire’s portion of the project is estimated at $75 million to $80 million, Way said.

“We are still working with the city about the potential support, and of course we still have some philanthropy to raise,” Way said Wednesday. “But now that we know the students are committed to supporting the project once we build it, this gives us the green light” to aim for breaking ground in 2021.

What’s the impact for students?

Full-time UW-Eau Claire students currently pay $684 per semester in segregated fees, according to the university’s website.

It’s likely the Sonnentag student fee will cost students less than $90 per semester, but “we at Student Senate wanted to put a cap on it,” said UW-Eau Claire student body president and fourth-year student Anna Ziebell in March.

Since the Sonnentag Centre is a public-private partnership, not exclusively a UW-Eau Claire project, students will ultimately pay much less for access to the Sonnentag facilities, Ziebell said in March.

“We will only be paying to lease certain portions, specifically the fitness and wellness facility and events center … it’s a much cheaper option for students to replace Zorn Arena,” she said.

Also on the ballot

The Sonnentag referendum was on the ballot during the annual Student Senate elections in April.

A constitutional ratification, Student Senate positions, and student body president and vice president positions were also on the ballot.

Students Jaden Mikoulinskii and Justin Schilling won student body president and vice president, respectively. They ran unopposed.

Eau Claire native joins U.S. Senate race
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EAU CLAIRE — Sarah Godlewski, an Eau Claire native and state treasurer, joined fellow Democrats running in the 2022 election for a U.S. Senate seat currently held by Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh.

Godlewski officially began her run on Wednesday, coming out with an announcement and campaign video criticizing Johnson and his support for former President Donald Trump.

“Ron Johnson has completely lost touch with Wisconsin and reality, spreading conspiracy theories, denying climate change and obstructing economic relief. It’s time to take a different path in Washington,” Godlewski stated.

Johnson, who was first elected in 2010, has not announced whether he will seek re-election for a third term. Last week Trump, through his political action committee, encouraged Johnson to run again and offered his enthusiastic endorsement to the Wisconsin Republican.

Godlewski is entering a race with three Democrats already registered and others considering a run as well. Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson and Dr. Gillian Battino, a radiologist from Wausau, are all officially in the race and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said he is considering it.

“I’m excited to be in this race,” Godlewski said in a phone interview with the Leader-Telegram.

Godlewski believes she brings a perspective that other candidates don’t have, including her upbringing in the Chippewa Valley, experience as a working mom and a professional background of investing in small businesses.

Campaigning for the U.S. Senate seat does rule out Godlewski from seeking a sophomore term as state treasurer because Wisconsin law forbids candidates from running for more than one partisan office in an election.

When asked for comment about an area Democrat joining the Senate race, a state Republican Party official from Fall Creek welcomed Godlowski to the competition.

“My off-the-cuff reaction is ‘come on in, the water’s fine,’” said Brian Westrate, who serves as treasurer of the Wisconsin GOP.

He gave Godlowski credit for winning her current position in a November 2018 election, but did said the treasurer doesn’t have many official duties in the state government.

“I don’t find the treasurer position particularly compelling,” Westrate said. “The truth is the Wisconsin treasurer doesn’t really have any power at all.”

The treasurer’s duties include signing certain checks and other financial instruments, promoting the state’s unclaimed property program and serving on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, according to the Wisconsin Blue Book.

Viewing the position as antiquated and ceremonial, state Republicans including Godlewski’s predecessor, Matt Adamczyk, had pushed to eliminate the treasurer’s office.

However, Godlewski has touted the position as the state’s “fiscal watchdog” and fought against a referendum that asked voters to abolish the office. In April 2018, 61% of Wisconsin voters decided the elected post was worth keeping.

Seven months later, Godlewski won the state treasurer’s election with 51% of the vote. Republican challenger Travis Hartwig received 47% of the vote and Constitution Party candidate Andrew Zuelke got support from 2%.

Godlewski counts those 2018 elections as two wins in statewide elections, citing that as evidence of her electability even in some spots Republicans usually control.

“We were winning in areas that Democrats had not won before,” she said.

Since taking office, Godlewski has touted the watchdog role of treasurer and used the position to push for education funding, government transparency and increasing both homeownership and retirement savings.

In her role as chairwoman of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, she secured more funding to help schools with technology costs that arose at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our schools were doing everything they could but they didn’t have the resources to set everything up for remote learning,” she said.

A fund that she oversees with Wisconsin’s attorney general and secretary of state authorized $5.3 million last spring to buy wireless hotspots, electronic textbooks and other distance learning tools for school districts. That was in addition to $38.2 million the fund contributed in its regular allocation to school libraries, which made for a record year of disbursements for the program.

Godlewski said her work to diversify the fund’s investment portfolio created more money to help schools.

“We’ve had higher returns because we’ve made smart investment decisions,” she said.

Fitting her campaign promise to increase transparency, Godlewski’s office recently released The Taxpayer Report — an easy-to-understand document showing taxpayers how the state spends money — on the Treasurer’s Office website.

Godlewski also used her prominent post to lead task forces to address lagging homeownership and retirement savings in Wisconsin, which make recommendations meant to inspire bills from legislators.

Her first campaign video highlighted her roots in Eau Claire and experience both in the public and private sector, but much of it was focused on critiques of Johnson.

Westrate chalked the tone of the video to the way politics are today, but said the attacks on Johnson could be wasted energy if the incumbent opts not to seek re-election.

“We don’t know yet whether Ron is going to run again,” Westrate said.

If the GOP side of the ticket is indeed open, Westrate said that would make for a long primary season even before the Senate election happens in November 2022.

“It will be fascinating to see who else gets into the race,” he said.