Sonnentag Event Center

UW-Eau Claire’s event center at the planned Sonnentag Centre would host Blugold basketball games, replacing the university’s 70-year-old Zorn Arena.

EAU CLAIRE — Preparations for a new event center in Eau Claire have resumed after being put on pause last spring early in the coronavirus pandemic.

Hoping to break ground this year, organizers of the Sonnentag Centre have been checking in with numerous partners involved in the multimillion-dollar project to pick up where planning left off in 2020.

“I don’t think anybody’s wavered in what they think is the value of the project,” said Kimera Way, president of Eau Claire Community Complex Inc., the nonprofit entity created to serve as owner of the development.

Partners involved in the project are UW-Eau Claire, Blugold Real Estate — a subsidiary of the university foundation, the city of Eau Claire, Mayo Clinic Health System and UW-Eau Claire. Slated for land along Menomonie Street bordered by the Chippewa River Trail, the complex is planned to include a major event center with 5,100 seats, a fitness center, indoor synthetic turf fieldhouse and a Mayo Clinic Health System sports medicine center and imaging clinic.

The project was kicked off by a gift valued at $10 million from UW-Eau Claire alumni and owners of County Materials Corp., John and Carolyn Sonnentag, who included 21 acres of their company’s land along Menomonie Street in their donation. Most of County Materials’ structures have been cleared off the site, but one building has been left behind for use as a project construction headquarters. County Materials has since moved into a nearby building that had been home to a construction vehicle company.

First announced to the public in 2014, the Sonnentag Centre has been in the planning stages for years, but a groundbreaking was initially scheduled for last summer. However, the project announced in April 2020 that it would temporarily be on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In autumn the project started to reconnect with its partners to get preparations going again for a potential start to construction by the end of 2021, Way said.

One of those partners the city, which in January 2020 made a nonbinding commitment to contribute $6 million to $8.5 million to the project.

At the end of Monday night’s meeting, the Eau Claire City Council is scheduled to go into closed session to talk about specific negotiating points for a contribution to the complex.

City Attorney Stephen Nick said the talks are resuming at the request of the project’s organizers.

“They’ve now asked that we look at it again,” he said.

More than a year ago the council signed a letter of intent outlining general terms of a $6 million to $7 million contribution to the project so the event center’s original 4,100-seat capacity would be increased to 5,100, allowing it to host larger events. The letter also specified an additional $1.5 million contribution if the building would be energy-independent and also be used as a community shelter in case of natural disasters.

The council voted 9-0 — one member was absent and another seat was not filled at the time — to approve the letter on Jan. 28, but noted that more in-depth negotiations for a formal agreement. When the pandemic hit and the Sonnentag Centre was put on hold, those talks didn’t occur.

But to schedule work for the upcoming construction season, now is the time for the project to start back up as it faces multiple levels of approval before building would commence.

In addition to city approvals, the Sonnentag Centre is expected to be subject to a referendum of UW-Eau Claire students to gauge their support for the project. Student fees are anticipated to be a funding source for the lease that UW-Eau Claire will pay to Eau Claire Community Complex Inc. for being the main tenant in the complex.

Along with a vote of students, Way noted the project also would need approval from UW System officials as well.

Earlier estimates for the entire development’s price at $90 million to $100 million, but that was for a prior version of the plan that included a new YMCA, which pulled out of the project in late 2019.

New cost estimates are among the things that project planners are currently working to update since the pandemic had put their efforts on hold for much of 2020, Way said.

She did affirm that the project is being designed with sustainable costs in mind.

“Our goal is and our No. 1 guiding principle is we’ll build what we can afford to operate,” Way said.

A former university official spoke about the Sonnentag Centre moving forward this year during a prerecorded message included in Friday morning’s State of the City address hosted by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.

“In 2021 I know the work is going to continue in order to see how this wonderful vision is going to come to fruition,” Mike Rindo, who retired last year as UW-Eau Claire’s assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations, said in the short video.

Other business

While a discussion on negotiating points for a contribution to the Sonnentag Centre will be in closed session this week, the City Council has other items on their agenda that will be in open session during this week’s meetings.

• Roadwork planned on portions of Eddy Lane, Lake Street, Omaha Street, Garfield Avenue, Wildwood Court and Mitscher Avenue will be subject to public hearings tonight before the council votes on them during Tuesday’s meeting.

• Changes to the process for getting a license to raise backyard chickens will be the topic of a public hearing tonight and a vote on Tuesday.

• The Eau Claire Fire Department is seeking the council’s permission to apply for $33,600 in grants from The Presto Foundation to buy equipment used to remove toxic substances from protective gear after fighting fires.

• Votes on road construction and alleyway projects postponed during meetings earlier this month are returning for a decision on Tuesday.

• Wurzer Builders is asking that 70½ acres currently in the town of Washington be annexed into city limits for the purposes of future development. The land is along Graff Road, next to 38 acres where Wurzer has already announced plans for numerous multifamily residential buildings.

• Following Tuesday’s regular council meeting will be a work session with the city’s Housing Opportunities Commission to discuss policies on the use of money from Eau Claire’s affordable housing fund.

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