Convention Center Would Benefit Eau Claire, Study Says, But Location Still Uncertain

Tom Giffey

An artist's conception of the proposed Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex, which could be part of an effort to built a city convention center (or not).
An artist's conception of the proposed Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex, which could be part of an effort to built a city convention center (or not).

A just-released feasibility study concludes that building a new convention center in Eau Claire could have a nearly $200 million economic impact over the course of a decade, but the ideal location of such a facility remains unclear.

The study, commissioned by Visit Eau Claire and the City of Eau Claire, recommends that a 117,000-square-foot convention center and an adjacent 200-room hotel be built. Locations should be considered both downtown and on Menomonie Street, where the convention center would be part of UW-Eau Claire’s proposed Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex.

Chicago-based Hunden Strategic Partners estimates a stand-alone convention facility – encompassing a 30,000-square-foot exhibition hall, a 15,000-square-foot grand ballroom, and 8,000 square feet of meeting rooms – would cost $49.4 million to build.

On Wednesday, Visit Eau Claire’s board of directors voted unanimously to continue to explore the possibility of building a convention center and to consider both Menomonie Street and downtown locations. Visit Eau Claire will also explore funding models needed to build and sustain the facility.

“If we can figure out how to build a convention center, the demand is there,” said Linda John, Visit Eau Claire’s executive director

“If we can figure out how to build a convention center, the demand is there,” said Linda John, Visit Eau Claire’s executive director. According to the study, a new facility would host an estimated 144 events – ranging from trade shows to business meetings – in its first year. By year 10, this figure could grow to 257 events annually.

Visit Eau Claire had previously estimated that over a five-year period Eau Claire missed out on $45 million in spending by groups who wanted to hold their conventions in Eau Claire but couldn’t because facilities were inadequate.

In the study, Hunden Strategic Partners estimates that the 10-year total of direct spending generated by a convention center would total $115 million, a figure that would rise to $199 million when indirect and induced spending is considered. In addition, as many as 321 new jobs would be created by the facility by its 10th year of operation, and a total of $5 million in extra room taxes would be collected over the course of a decade, the study estimates.

While meeting planners statewide generally have a positive view of Eau Claire, a shortage of adequate convention facilities hinders the community, the study said. While smaller options such as the Davies Center, the Lismore Hotel, and Florian Gardens exist, no current venue includes an exhibit hall, ballroom, and breakout meeting rooms under a single roof. In addition, the study notes, the loss of the Plaza Hotel & Suites – which was torn down to make way for the new Marshfield Clinic hospital – made the local supply problem even worse.

The study recommends that an event center would be more cost effective if it were built to accommodate 6,500 people rather than the 4,500 in the current Sonnentag Center proposal. 

The study recommends that an event center would be more cost effective if it were built to accommodate 6,500 people rather than the 4,500 in the current Sonnentag Center proposal. According to the study, “While the larger, 6,500-seat scenario is only 44 percent larger and will only host 16 more events, it is projected to generate nearly three times the amount of fiscal impact over the first ten years of operations.”

(The Sonnentag Center has been on the drawing board since 2014, when the UW-Eau Claire Foundation announced a donation of money and land worth $10 million from alumni John and Carolyn Sonnentag. The proposed center would serve as a replacement for Zorn Arena as a home for Blugold sports as well as other musical and community events.)

As the study notes, co-locating with the Sonnentag Center would offer advantages for a convention center. Combining an event center, a convention center, a new YMCA, and a hotel, Eau Claire may be able to compete for more and larger events than it could if these facilities were scattered, the study says. However, it adds, the Menomonie Street site has drawbacks. For example, it isn’t close to restaurants, hotels, and other downtown amenities that visitors would appreciate. “It would be more of a suburban-type setting,” John said.

As the study states, “Meeting planners and attendees do not want to feel isolated in their hotel or convention center during their stay. A location downtown would offer this upside, although (it) would be mitigated by not being adjacent to the event center, which could share events. While there is no perfect scenario for Eau Claire, the pros and cons of the location should be considered.”

Visit Eau Claire and the city also need to evaluate business models for how a convention center would operate. While John said it’s rare to see city-owned convention centers succeed, a completely private facility is unlikely as well: If a privately built, owned, and operated convention center were viable, she noted, the private sector would have already created one. It’s more likely that a convention facility would be the product of a public-private partnership, much like the one that led to the construction of the Pablo Center at the Confluence (which is now, incidentally, home to Visit Eau Claire).

“It’s clear that the demand is there, and that’s what people need to focus on.”
–Andrew Werthmann, Eau Claire City Council acting president

Andrew Werthmann, acting president of the Eau Claire City Council, said the study makes a strong case for a 6,500-seat convention center. While a larger facility would be more costly, it would also draw many more events and visitors, Werthmann noted. “It’s clear that the demand is there, and that’s what people need to focus on,” he said.

Werthmann added that it’s premature to say how the project would be paid for and whether a downtown site or the Menomonie Street location is preferable. “I think there's positives to both (sites), and we’re going to have to take more time to study the options,” he said.

John expects further conversations about a convention center to begin in the new year, with possible specific recommendations reached by the end of 2019. “A year from now, I think we’ll have a better idea for a path,” she said.

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