The Eau Claire City Council this week is poised to decide, or at least further discuss, if it wants to become a financial partner with UW-Eau Claire in construction of the Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex bordered by Menomonie Street and the Chippewa River just west of Hobbs Ice Center.
UW-Eau Claire officials are eager for a timely response if they are to break ground this summer as hoped. That ambitious timetable simply doesn’t leave much time for meaningful public involvement.
The event center plan was unveiled in August 2014 with a donation of 21 acres and other support valued at $10 million by UW-Eau Claire alums and County Materials owners John and Carolyn Sonnentag. It eventually grew into a planned $90 million to $100 million partnership including Mayo Clinic Health System, the YMCA and the real estate arm of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation.
Unfortunately, YMCA officials determined late last year that they couldn’t commit to their $25 million share of the project and withdrew. Now, plans are being redone, and the City Council is considering contributing to the event center portion of the project to add seating capacity.
Not that many years ago, the city’s rejection of involvement in this endeavor would have been swift and firm. Property tax support of any “arena” was not something most folks wanted any part of.
But the city has changed. The Pablo Center at the Confluence became a reality thanks in part to $5 million in city funds and another $3.5 million in county support approved by taxpayers in referendums. But for this council to make any quick, sizable commitment on the current proposal may not sit well with taxpayers who also will be asked this spring to OK a $48.8 million referendum for Chippewa Valley Technical College.
The Pablo Center worked because many sectors — the Chamber of Commerce, the arts community, businesses and groups large and small, some key individuals and area Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature — got behind the plan. It didn’t happen overnight; these things never do.
Consultant Hunden Strategic Partners, hired by the city and Visit Eau Claire, concluded the city could support an events center that seats 6,500, roughly twice the size of Zorn Arena. The plan on the table calls for 4,100 seats. Presumably the city’s contribution, if approved, would allow for some number in between.
Among concerns is learning a lot more about what events Eau Claire would attract with such a facility, and how often. Also, how would such a facility compete for entertainment dollars with the Pablo Center, which receives $225,000 annually in city room tax funding? The region’s ability to support arts and entertainment is not unlimited. The last thing we want is to inhibit the Pablo’s chances for long-term success.
There’s also the convention center issue. Hunden Strategic Partners also recommended the city build such a facility, ideally downtown, to attract trade shows and other exhibitions that now bypass Eau Claire.
The location for such a facility that seems to jump out at one driving through downtown Eau Claire is the vacant space just south of the Pablo Center. Perhaps a convention center there could be connected directly to the Pablo Center to complement each other.
The difference between committing millions to the Sonnentag complex or millions more to a convention center is that the City Council is under no time crunch to deal with the latter proposal. It can continue to digest the consultant’s findings, engage the public, weigh the pros and cons, and eventually make a decision.
The council’s dilemma is the time crunch. We don’t want to miss an opportunity to partner with the university on a sensible project for mutual benefit. And after five-plus years, the UW-Eau Claire folks want to break ground, but the idea that the city invest millions in this project is not something that has been discussed publicly to any degree.
Some surely would want no part of this, and some would want us to proceed full speed ahead to keep the momentum of Eau Claire’s resurgence going strong. And if we wait and debate for very long, the opportunity may be lost forever. But major decisions like these made relatively quickly can backfire, or at least leave taxpayers feeling left out.
City Council members may already have studied the matter thoroughly and know what they feel we should do. But that’s only part of the equation. The other part is convincing those who would have to pick up the tab.
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.