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Hotel, Convention Center Added to Plans for UWEC Event Facility

Tom Giffey

A conceptual site plan showing possible locations for a hotel (left) and retail (upper right) space around the Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex on Menomonie Street.
A conceptual site plan showing possible locations for a hotel (left) and retail (upper right) space around the Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex on Menomonie Street. Click for a biggie.

A hotel – or even two of them – and convention space should be part of a proposed event center development on Menomonie Street, partners in the project said Tuesday. Visit Eau Claire, the region’s tourism promotion agency, announced that it will be working with the Blugold Real Estate Foundation to promote the construction of the event center on 25 acres along Menomonie Street.

While plans for the event center – which would combine a new university arena, convention center space, and other elements – have been on the drawing board for two years, the idea took on added urgency when it was announced this month that the Plaza Hotel would close at the end of the year. The Plaza – which has 233 guest rooms and 28,000 square feet of meeting space – is the largest convention facility in Eau Claire, but it will be demolished to make way for a new Marshfield Clinic hospital.

“Never was there a question for the need for a competitive convention facility,” said Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire, “but instead the question always came down to where it would be located and how it would be paid for.”

“Based on the announcement of about 10 days ago, the need is greater today than ever before in the history of our city,” Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire, said of the dearth of convention space in the Chippewa Valley. That need has been identified by numerous studies over the years, and it’s been chronicled by Visit Eau Claire, which in a five-year period counted 157 events with an economic impact of more than $40 million that were too large for Eau Claire to accommodate. “Never was there a question for the need for a competitive convention facility,” John said, “but instead the question always came down to where it would be located and how it would be paid for.”

The location question was answered, in part, in 2014 when UWEC alums John and Carolyn Sonnentag, and their business, County Materials Corp., made a donation of money and land worth $10 million to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, which is affiliated with the Blugold Real Estate Foundation. The 25 acres lie between Menomonie Street and the Chippewa River, near both Carson Park and Clairemont Avenue. Plans call for the construction of the Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex, which would include a 130,000-square-foot major event center with seating for 4,500-5,000 people (with a standing-room-only capacity of 6,000); a wellness, aquatics, and recreation facility that would be shared by UWEC and the Eau Claire YMCA, with Mayo Clinic Health System partnering with them for programming; as well as plenty of parking and land suitable for private development.

And that private development space is ideal for a hotel, partners say. “The (hotel) discussion was a natural evolution once the announcement was made about the Plaza Hotel,” said Kimera Way, executive director of the Blugold Real Estate Foundation and the UWEC Foundation. In fact, she said, the idea of a future hotel had always been in the mix. A conceptual drawing by Ayres Associates and RDG Planning & Design shows a hotel on the far western corner of the property, between the Chippewa River, a bike trail, and the event center itself.

An artist’s rendering shows a preliminary design concept for the Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex to be built on land donated between the Chippewa River and Menomonie Street in Eau Claire. Closer look.
An artist’s rendering shows a preliminary design concept for the Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex to be built on land donated between the Chippewa River and Menomonie Street in Eau Claire. Get a closer look.

John said Visit Eau Claire is working with 13 groups that had planned conventions at the Plaza in 2017 and 2018 and will be displaced by its demolition. The loss of the Plaza only exacerbates Eau Claire’s lack of facilities. “Anecdotally, people are bummed that they can’t hold their events here,” John said of convention organizers, who often seek out Eau Claire as a potential host city for their events.

John said the Sonnentag Complex site is well-suited for a pair of hotels, one with about 250 rooms, banquet space, kitchen facilities, and breakout rooms, all attached to the event center; and a second hotel with 100-150 rooms and more limited services.

While UWEC is not directly involved in this project – the property is owned by the Blugold Real Estate Foundation, a separate nonprofit entity – the university will use and benefit from whatever is built on the site. At a press conference announcing the partnership held on part of the donated property, Chancellor James Schmidt lauded other collaborative community efforts – including the revitalization of downtown Eau Claire and the Confluence Project – and said the Sonnentag Complex could lead to similar success. “Look down this street,” Schmidt said, gesturing toward the now-vacant buildings to the west. “What will this area look like in 15 years?”

There’s still a long way to go on the project, Way noted. To begin with, funding must be secured to demolish the buildings and a formal site plan must be developed. The project partners – including Blugold Real Estate, the Eau Claire YMCA, Mayo Clinic Health System, and the university – are in ongoing discussions about the effort. Still, the initiative with Visit Eau Claire announced Tuesday will put some added weight behind the community’s longstanding desire for a convention center.