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$100M Eau Claire Sports Complex Proposal Must Be Redesigned After Partner Pulls Out

Eau Claire YMCA Withdraws From Plan Citing Concerns About Long-Term Debt Tied to Construction

UW-Eau Claire foot bridge
Photo courtesy of UW-Eau Claire.

A proposed $100 million sports and events complex in Eau Claire will have to be redesigned after a major funding partner has pulled out of the project. But despite losing potentially $20 million in funding supporters still say ground will be broken this summer.

The 244,000-square-foot Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex project has been in the works since 2014 after the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Foundation announced a $10 million gift of riverfront property from alumni John and Carolyn Sonnentag, who own County Materials Corp.

The goal was to replace Zorn Arena on the UW-Eau Claire campus, which was built in 1951 and holds up to 3,300 people, with a multi-use complex built on land along the Chippewa River used by County Materials until 2018.

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The UW-Eau Claire Foundation, Mayo Clinic Health System and Eau Claire YMCA were founding partners in the complex proposal which originally included a 97,000-square-foot multi-purpose event center with seating for up to 4,200 people, a 118,000-square-foot fitness and recreation center, and a 30,000-square-foot Mayo Clinic sports medicine research center.

In October, the UW-Eau Claire Foundation set a groundbreaking for July but on Dec. 17 it was announced the YMCA was pulling out. A foundation press release included comment from Eau Claire YMCA Executive Director Theresa Hillis stating there were concerns “that significant capital debt could put the long-term fiscal well-being of the YMCA at risk to deliver on their mission.”

“As stated by the ECCC Board, every partner in the project has its own needs, requirements, and governing policies,” Hillis said in the press release. “The current project timeline, and adhering to the principle that we cannot build what is not funded, led to the decision the YMCA is unable to proceed.”

Hillis was not available for additional comment Monday.

In an interview with WPR, UW-Eau Claire Foundation President Kimera Way, who also presides over the nonprofit group overseeing the new complex, said after the 2020 groundbreaking deadline was set the YMCA had to reassess its ability to participate. Way said she’s disappointed the organization is pulling out, but the project will continue.

“I still believe that our vision and mission for this project is still going to be an improvement (from) what we now have,” said Way. “It will be, certainly, an enhancement of that area of the community in terms of use of beautiful riverfront property.”

Way said despite the YMCA backing out, the goal is still to break ground some time in 2020, though Way wouldn’t specify if it would happen by July.

UW-Eau Claire Assistant Chancellor for Facilities and University Relations Mike Rindo said the YMCA’s portion of construction costs would have worked out to between $20 million and $25 million. He said without that funding the scope of the complex must change.

“Well, the project will have to undergo a pretty significant redesign for the recreation and fitness component because the YMCA has determined it can no longer participate,” Rindo said. “So, that means we’re going to have to take a look, strictly from a university perspective, of what our recreation and fitness needs are and then downsize the project accordingly.”

Despite being a player in the end use of the complex, Rindo made clear the university itself won’t pay for construction costs. Instead, he said UW-Eau Claire plans to lease space within the complex using student fees. The campus’ student government will hold a referendum in April seeking approval from students to increase segregate fees to pay for any lease agreement.