“I’d like to have a shovel in the ground in the next two years.”

So said UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt in regard to the proposed Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex during a meeting with Leader-Telegram editors this week.

Alumni John and Carolyn Sonnentag and their family foundation donated about $10 million in cash and property along Menomonie Street to the Blugold Real Estate Foundation in 2014. Initial plans called for an event center, wellness, aquatics and recreation facilities, and other amenities.

“The event center concept calls for a highly versatile design that would accommodate multiple types of events and activities,” reads the university’s website, “including serving as a home for UW-Eau Claire men’s and women’s basketball games, men’s hockey games, basketball and other athletics tournaments, large indoor concerts and other entertainment or sports events.”

The YMCA and Mayo Clinic Health System are partnering on the project. Schmidt anticipated updating UW System officials and the Board of Regents soon about project developments.

“We’re trying to set the scope,” said Schmidt, who added that “wants” for the project have been voiced and “needs” are now taking center stage to “get to a size that can be paid for.”

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Schmidt also had some good news on the enrollment front as there’s been a significant increase in four-year graduation rates and a larger percentage of graduates are staying in the Chippewa Valley. Internships play a key role, he said, in the latter.

Challenges remain, however, as fewer high school graduates in Wisconsin makes for a smaller talent pool. That could get even more more challenging in a handful of years given that a Pew Research analysis found that “birth rates in the United States began to decline in 2008 after rising to their highest level in two decades, and the decrease appears to be linked to the recession.”

Schmidt also said the relatively recent merger between UW-Eau Claire and UW-Barron County in Rice Lake was conducted with “very little disruption for students.”

Although enrollment concerns persist for the satellite campus, UW-Eau Claire officials have been visiting with stakeholders in Rice Lake to get feedback on needs in the region.

“If it’s important to the community,” Schmidt said, “I want to engage the community.

“(We want to) make sure we take full advantage of everything that campus can become.”

The chancellor also highlighted continued progress on a research collaboration with Mayo Clinic Health System announced two years ago.

“They picked us,” Schmidt said, adding that the partnership will give UW-Eau Claire the opportunity “to talk to a national audience.”

Students will be moving in Labor Day weekend and classes begin Sept. 4.

Liam Marlaire, assistant editor