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.
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.