The recent consultant’s report questioning the wisdom of the Menomonie Street location for UW-Claire’s major events center leaves city leaders with a lot to digest.
It’s been four-plus years since UW-EC officials unveiled plans for the Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex, named in honor of alums John and Carolyn Sonnentag, whose donation of land and money is valued at $10 million, a very huge starting point for this or any proposal.
A key goal for this plan is to replace aging Zorn Arena, home of UW-EC basketball, commencements and other large gatherings. Original plans called for seating for 4,500 to 5,000 for sporting events and up to 6,000 for concerts.
Picking up on the public-private partnership blueprint that served us well in building the Pablo Center at the Confluence, the university’s plan also includes private investments by the YMCA and Mayo Clinic Health System to include wellness, aquatics and recreational facilities.
Back in August 2014 when the Sonnentag center plan was unveiled, officials also talked of their hope for an adjacent restaurant and perhaps other retail development along the Chippewa River. There was also talk that a hotel might be lured to build west of the complex near the intersection of Menomonie Street and Clairemont Avenue.
The consultant’s report commissioned by Visit Eau Claire and the city spoke of the lack of these businesses as a reason to possibly reconsider the Sonnentag site. At the very least, this report should make officials step back and ask anew what’s doable and practical given Eau Claire’s layout, financial limits (both public and private) and goals.
Certainly, a La Crosse Center-type facility would be nice. That center on the Mississippi River includes 100,000 square feet of convention space and an arena that seats up to 7,500 for concerts. It is adjacent to hotels and close to downtown restaurants and other businesses, and it also has skywalk access to an adjacent parking ramp. It has hosted the likes of Elton John, The Beach Boys and Motley Crue, not to mention monster truck shows, and professional basketball and indoor football teams.
Some questioned why officials here didn’t opt for a larger concert facility when the Pablo Center was planned. That, of course, would have added millions in building and maintenance costs, and the overwhelming need here was a facility to replace The State Theatre for local and touring acts that didn’t need cavernous seating capacity. The Pablo Center is just what we needed, and at a final cost of $60 million, is at the upper end of what we could afford.
So if and (hopefully) when the Sonnentag Center is built, it will meet an important need for the community, university, YMCA and many Mayo Clinic patients as well.
That still would leave Eau Claire without a major convention center but still with several large gathering places such as the L.E. Phillips YMCA Sports Center, the Chippewa Valley Expo Center, The Metropolis Resort and Conference Center, The Lismore hotel, the Menards Conference Center and the UW-Eau Claire Davies Center. And, lest we forget, the sites formerly known as Kmart, Sears and Younkers all are empty and available with ample parking.
The consultant’s report says a 117,000-square-foot convention center would cost about $50 million, and should be near if not connected to parking, hotel(s) and restaurants.
A couple things:
We need to support Pablo Properties’ multi-million-dollar gamble to gut and rehabilitate what is now The Lismore. Had local philanthropist Zach Halmstad and his partners not stepped forward, I shudder to think what the former Ramada would look like today. Incorporating the Lismore and nearby Oxbow hotel (which Halmstad also helped restore) into any downtown convention center plan rather than using public incentives to support a competing hotel is paramount.
This brings us to possible downtown locations for a stand-alone convention center, if it’s determined the need is that acute. We already have parking ramps, hotels, restaurants and a spanking new arts center all within blocks of each other. It would seem in our best interest to incorporate these existing amenities into any convention center plan rather than duplicate and compete with them.
The university’s plan to acquire land west of Hobbs Municipal Ice Center and take advantage of the riverfront beauty is a good one, but funding remains a major hurdle. Given that students still are paying off Davies Center, the publicity about student loan debt, and the fact that state lawmakers not that long ago signed off on a $15 million contribution to the Pablo Center, it may be some time before the Sonnentag Center secures funding.
This leaves time to digest and discuss the consultant’s report. But in doing so, let’s hope the outcome is something that works for our community and university, while as much as possible incorporates and takes advantage of our many recent public and private improvements.
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor.