Convention & Event Center: Local Leaders Are Thinking Bigger
Eau Claire leaders consider a convention center downtown while also boosting the capacity of UW-Eau Claire’s Sonnentag Complex plans
Back in 2012, the Clear Vision civic planning process identified three major facility needs for Eau Claire: a community arts center, a major events center, and a convention center. The Pablo Center at the Confluence, which opened last year, checked the first of those boxes. The Sonnentag Complex, which UW-Eau Claire plans to start building next year on Menomonie Street, could meet some – but probably not all – of the community’s needs as an event center. And the Chippewa Valley still misses out on millions of dollars of outside spending annually because of its lack of adequate convention facilities.
Now, a group of civic leaders is working to see what funding mechanisms would work to help pay for a new downtown convention and event center as well as boost the capacity of the Sonnentag Complex, which UWEC has said will hold up to 4,100 patrons. That’s enough seats to meet the university’s needs, but a feasibility study commissioned by Visit Eau Claire and the City of Eau Claire last year said the community would benefit from a major event center accommodating as many as 6,500 people.
“Cities of our size have much larger facilities in which to host groups of people for conventions and events, and we have just continued to lag behind our Midwest competitors. We’re going backwards right now because we have not found a solution to address this need.” – Linda John, Visit Eau Claire
That feasibility study, which was prepared by Chicago-based Hunden Strategic Partners, encouraged Visit Eau Claire to continue pursuing new convention and event facilities because of their projected economic benefit.
Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire, the area’s tourism marketing agency, said an ideal downtown convention and event facility would accommodate 1,200 people, would be located near the Pablo Center, and would encompass 38,000 square feet, including exhibit space, banquet facilities, breakout rooms, and a 200-room hotel.
John emphasized that the city misses out on a minimum of $10 million in convention business annually because it simply can’t accommodate larger groups. “Cities of our size have much larger facilities in which to host groups of people for conventions and events, and we have just continued to lag behind our Midwest competitors,” John said. “We’re going backwards right now because we have not found a solution to address this need,” she said, alluding to the fact that the city lost its largest convention facility when the Plaza Hotel & Suites was demolished in 2017.
“This community has a proven track record of working collaboratively with various partners to develop public-private partnerships that solve community needs. I’m optimistic that there will be some viable opportunities that can be explored.” – Dale Peters, Eau Claire city manager
Eau Claire City Manager Dale Peters said the city is working closely with Visit Eau Claire and the business community to explore the best way to meet the community’s needs for convention and major event space.
“The university building a 4,100-seat event center only happens once every many decades, so it is a unique opportunity and it is worth the time and effort to explore opportunities to provide the right size for the community,” Peters said in an interview. Likewise, he said, now is also the time to explore the feasibility of a downtown convention and event center. Peters pointed to two potential sites: the vacant property just south of the Pablo Center on Graham Avenue as well as the aging city parking ramp on Farwell Street next to the Lismore Hotel.
Peters said he’s optimistic that city government, the business community, the university, and Visit Eau Claire can cooperate successfully. “This community has a proven track record of working collaboratively with various partners to develop public-private partnerships that solve community needs,” he said. “I’m optimistic that there will be some viable opportunities that can be explored.”
The city is exploring financing options for the potential facilities, as well as the public infrastructure that would support them, Peters said.
Peters and John noted that the two potential projects are on different timelines. Because the university intends to break ground on the Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex by July 1, a potential collaboration on that project is on the fast track. Peters said that city staff will ideally bring information about the project to the City Council by the end of the year. And John said Visit Eau Claire hopes to have financial data compiled by the end of November; the organization’s board – which includes representatives of the area’s hospitality businesses as well as community leaders and members of the City Council – could make a decision in December.
Meanwhile, Peters said, he hopes the City Council can consider financing options for a potential downtown convention and event center within six months.
John said the possible downtown convention and event center would either be fully private or a public-private partnership: The city, she said, has no desire to own and operate a convention and event center itself.
Earlier this month, John added, the Visit Eau Claire Board of Directors accepted recommendations from its Destination Development Committee to further study and develop plans for locating, funding, and operating a potential convention and events center.
After years of pondering such facilities, however, the community is reaching a decision point, John said. “We want to stop studying and talking now and just move to the next stage of due diligence,” she said. “What if we did build something on this site using this mechanism? What would that look like?”
UWEC is eager to begin work on the Sonnentag Complex, a $90 million to $100 million facility that has been planned in collaboration with the Chippewa Valley YMCA and Mayo Clinic Health System. The facility was first announced in 2014, when alumni John and Carolyn Sonnentag pledged about $10 million, including the property, to the university.
In addition to providing a replacement for Zorn Arena (used by the university for basketball games, commencements, and other big events), which would be demolished, the Sonnentag Complex will create wellness and aquatic facilities to be shared by YMCA members and UWEC students as well as a home for the Mayo Clinic’s sports medicine practice.
In early October, UWEC Chancellor James Schmidt said the university intends to put shovels in the dirt by July. Between now and then, the university will have to finalize the facility’s design. If it were to accommodate plans for a bigger structure to meet the community’s needs, “There’s a finite amount of time, but there’s not a firm deadline,” said Mike Rindo, assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations at UWEC.
Rindo, who also serves as chairman of the Visit Eau Claire Board of Directors, said the university is still “exploring the possibility” of partnering with Visit Eau Claire and the city to increase the capacity of the Sonnentag Complex to make it more attractive for larger events.
But regardless of expanding the potential size of the Sonnentag Complex, Rindo said the university expects the site and the area around it to be attractive for private developers, including hotels, who want to take advantage of the crowds drawn by both the event center and nearby amenities such as Carson Park, Hobbs Ice Arena, and the Menard YMCA Tennis Center.