Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A day of possibilities for campus and community

John Sonnentag speaks as his wife and fellow Blugold alum Carolyn Sonnentag looks on during the Aug. 5 announcement of a $10 million gift of land and money from the Sonnentag Foundation to Blugold Real Estate for the development of a large multipurpose events center to be used by the UW-Eau Claire and the community.
What an outstanding day we had yesterday for UW-Eau Claire and the city of Eau Claire! I had the honor and the privilege of announcing some transformational gifts to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation that open wonderful opportunities for the future of our university and our community.

Behind the gifts are two Blugold alums, John and Carolyn Sonnentag, who met while they were students at UW-Eau Claire in the 1960s. It was here that they fell in love  with each other and with the university. After college they worked together over the years building the family business founded by John’s father, and now County Materials Corporation employs more than 1,200 people in 40 locations across the United States.

At County Materials in Eau Claire, we shared the news that the Sonnentags have committed, through their philanthropic foundation, to donate 21 acres of land the entire current County Materials site on Menomonie Street to Blugold Real Estate, a subsidiary of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation. Their intent is that the land be the location of a major events center, and they also have pledged a large monetary gift in support of the center’s development. (See the full story and a video on the UW-Eau Claire news website.)

The combined value of the Sonnentag Foundation gifts is approximately $10 million the largest outright gift to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation in its nearly 60-year history. I am so very grateful for the generous spirit of these Blugold alumni!

Blugold Real Estate also is working with the Sonnentags and the Fey family, owners of Student Transit Inc. directly adjacent to the County Materials site, to acquire that property and expand the area available for development of what is to be called the County Materials Event and Recreation Complex.

The Sonnentag gifts take us one giant step closer to meeting major goals established by both UW-Eau Claire's master-planning process and the citizen-based Clear Vision planning process for the city of Eau Claire and Eau Claire County. In our long-range planning process, UW-Eau Claire identified the need for a large events venue a need actually discussed for decades by the university.  Also acknowledged during the master-planning process was the fact that we don’t have sufficient land within our borders to accommodate a large facility and the parking necessary to support it. Meanwhile, the Eau Claire Clear Vision process identified larger and improved events facilities as a priority for the city and county.

So, how wonderful it is that the Sonnentags have come forward to help us move toward realizing the vision for a large events venue for our university and community! The concept for the County Materials Event and Recreation Complex includes an approximately 7,500-seat multipurpose event center, as well as recreation and athletics facilities for UW-Eau Claire. In addition to university events, high school commencement ceremonies and other events previously held in the much-too-small Zorn Arena, we will, through our strategic partnership with Visit Eau Claire, make the new facility available for community use to bring in events Eau Claire has not previously been able to attract because of limited facility capacity.

As Visit Eau Claire Executive Director Linda John noted today, the words “large-scale indoor event” have not previously been part of the tourism vocabulary in Eau Claire. Today’s announcement is, in Linda's words, a "game-changer” for Eau Claire and could mean tens of millions of dollars in new visitor spending, which will positively impact restaurants, hotels, attractions and retail outlets, as well as the entire community.

What makes this project all the more exciting is our partnership with the Eau Claire YMCA, with the potential for the Y’s new home to be located on the County Materials site. We are exploring how the university and the YMCA might construct complementary facilities and then establish use agreements whereby Y members and UW-Eau Claire students would have shared use of both facilities.  As I’ve said many times since arriving here just over a year ago, the way to move forward is by working together  and this partnership has much potential for both UW-Eau Claire and the YMCA to achieve more together than either of us can on our own.

As mentioned during our announcement today, additional philanthropy will be needed to develop the major events center, and support from students will be needed to construct new recreation and athletic facilities for this project. And, of course, we have a very important project on the front burner right now, with fundraising actively underway for the Confluence Project community arts center. We are committed to securing all the funding needed for the Confluence Project before launching fundraising for the new multipurpose events center.

Clearly, we have our work cut out for us. But what a promising future is being shaped for our community, with both of these facilities within reach thanks to donors and our many partners. I can't wait to see what we will accomplish together!