Although the plans likely will be modified over time, the initial renditions for the Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex along Menomonie Street in Eau Claire are decidedly impressive.
The proposed 244,000-square-foot facility will be a public-private effort involving UW-Eau Claire, the YMCA and Mayo Clinic Health System. Site preparation is expected to begin soon, and those involved are hoping to have shovels in the ground by July.
Officials have called the project a game-changer for both the university and the community.
Plans call for UW-Eau Claire to operate a 97,000-square-foot event center, the university to share with the YMCA 118,000 square feet for fitness and recreation, and Mayo Clinic Health System to have 30,000 square feet for sports medicine and training services.
Although hurdles loom, let’s consider three key factors at this stage.
Making the proposed project possible was a $10 million donation of land and money from John and Carolyn Sonnentag. It’s near campus and its proximity to the John & Fay Menard YMCA Tennis Center, Carson Park and Hobbs Municipal Ice Arena can’t help but make the area a recreational hub.
“Our problem is we’re landlocked, so this was absolutely the ideal space for this to be located,” said Schmidt, who added that the project is about a mile from upper campus and near many students who reside off campus.
Land remains available near the complex for a possible large-scale convention site in the future, and the 4,100-seat arena would provide another venue for major events. For comparison, the 4,000-plus-seat United Wireless Arena in Dodge City, Kan., has an upcoming show with country artists Justin Moore and Tracy Lawrence and also will host comedian Jeff Dunham. The 3,500-plus-seat Pioneer Cellular Event Center in Weatherford, Okla., scheduled comedian Ken Jeong of the “Hangover” films fame.
Zorn Arena and the Eau Claire YMCA both were built 68 years ago. The new facility would replace them with an event center and recreational space that includes an aquatic center.
YMCA of the Chippewa Valley, which serves more than 16,000 members and participants, will be able to increase and modernize its offerings.
UW-Eau Claire also will benefit from partnering with Mayo Clinic Health System in research and other areas, deepening a growing partnership between the organizations. The facility would ramp up what university officials said is a recreational infrastructure that compares poorly to other schools its size.
“Like (the Pablo Center at the Confluence), we all get something more than we would have gotten if we’d done it alone,” Schmidt said.
As always — and understandably — cost is where things get dicey. The total price tag is estimated to be north of $90 million.
University officials plan to fund their portion — estimated at $40 million to $45 million — through philanthropic efforts. A campus referendum in the spring will be held to seek student fees for operating expenses. The YMCA has begun a $25 million fundraising effort to pay for its share.
Other projects — such as a planned new children’s museum and a renovation of L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library — also will be fundraising.
“People give,” YMCA of the Chippewa Valley CEO Theresa Hillis told the Leader-Telegram’s Eric Lindquist, “and there are a lot of generous folks here.”
Schmidt echoed that sentiment.
“People give when they’re motivated by the mission of what it’s going to accomplish,” he said.
The Sonnentag facility is a big ask and an ambitious project. But “ambitious” is a label that could just as easily be ascribed to the city of Eau Claire.
— Liam Marlaire, assistant editor