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Blugold alumni land gift to be site of major events center

August 5, 2014


It comes down to love: John and Carolyn Sonnentag, whose foundation has donated $10 million in land and money for the development of a new major events center for UW-Eau Claire and the community, talk about the heart of their gift.


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Carolyn and John Sonnentag pose with UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt at the future site of a major events center that will be developed with the help of a $10 million gift of land and money from the Sonnentag Foundation to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation.

EAU CLAIRE — When John and Carolyn Sonnentag were University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students during the 1960s, the university's Zorn Arena was known as the Fieldhouse — and, except for new paint here and there over the years and a periodically refinished basketball floor, it looked largely the same as it does today.

While Zorn Arena has changed in name since the Sonnentags attended commencement ceremonies there nearly 50 years ago, it has remained UW-Eau Claire's largest events venue — with a capacity of 3,400 — since its construction in 1951. (See a 1971 Sports Illustrated story referring to the "tiny, 3,500-seat fieldhouse" in which the top-ranked Blugold men's basketball team competed.)  Believing that it's time for their alma mater and the surrounding community to have a facility capable of meeting today's demands for larger-scale events, they have pledged approximately $10 million in land and money through their philanthropic foundation to help make that happen.

The UW-Eau Claire Foundation announced today that the Sonnentag Foundation has committed to transfer ownership of 21 acres along Menomonie Street in Eau Claire to Blugold Real Estate, a subsidiary of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation. The 21 acres currently are owned by County Materials Corp., the Sonnentags' third-generation family-owned concrete manufacturing company. (See an aerial view of the site.)

The Sonnentag Foundation's gift represents the largest outright gift to the UW-Foundation in its nearly 60-year history.

"Words cannot adequately express the gratitude we feel for the Sonnentags' generosity in making this gift that will have such a significant and transformative impact both for UW-Eau Claire and for our region," said UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt. "The goals of both the university and the citizens of Eau Claire to bring a large events venue to our community are one very large step closer to being realized thanks to the Sonnentag Foundation and the generous spirit of John and Carolyn Sonnentag."

The transfer of the land to Blugold Real Estate is to be completed by the end of 2014. The Sonnentags' intended purpose for the property is that it serve as the site of a multipurpose events center that would accommodate at least 7,500 people and replace Zorn Arena as UW-Eau Claire's largest events venue.

In recognition of the Sonnentags' gift to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, the County Materials site will be named the County Materials Event and Recreation Complex.

Through their foundation, the Sonnentags, of Mount Dora, Florida, and formerly of Marathon City, Wisconsin, also have pledged a significant monetary contribution to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation in support of the events center, said Neil Lipinski, chair of Blugold Real Estate, which will own and develop the property. Construction of the multipurpose events facility will require additional private philanthropy, Lipinski said.

The Sonnentag Foundation gifts are recognized as contributions to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation's Power of Possible campaign, a comprehensive campaign to raise $60 million in support of people, programs and places at UW-Eau Claire by Dec. 31, 2016, during the year of the university's centennial celebration.

"This amazing gift demonstrates the true power of philanthropy and certainly is what will define the Power of Possible centennial campaign," said Barry Moullet, chair of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation board of directors. "We are humbled and immensely grateful that these two alumni, who spent formative years here on campus, have chosen their alma mater as a testament to their generosity."

John Sonnentag graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 1966 with degrees in business administration and history. Carolyn Sonnentag, a 1967 UW-Eau Claire graduate, earned a degree in medical technology.

"Carolyn and I feel that the UW-Eau Claire and the Eau Claire communities have made such a great contribution to our lives that we want to give back in whatever capacity we can," said John Sonnentag. "We are very pleased to help make this project happen."

YMCA partnership a possibility

In a related development, the UW-Eau Claire Foundation has approached the Eau Claire YMCA about a possible partnership through which some of the donated Menomonie Street land could be the site of a new YMCA. The partnership could include use agreements between the Foundation and YMCA to share facilities, said Kimera Way, UW-Eau Claire Foundation president. Way noted that there would be no shared ownership of facilities between the two organizations.

"The YMCA board of the directors is excited about exploring the possibilities for a facility to be used jointly with the university," said Ken Van Es, Eau Claire YMCA executive director. "Obviously, if we can avoid duplication of facilities and work together, it is a more efficient use of available funds. Also, the synergy that the university and the Y bring to the table may make a better project than either of us could do alone. There are obstacles that need to be worked out, but we are excited to see if this might be the answer for the Y in serving the Eau Claire community for the next 50 years."

Planning to maximize gift underway

The UW-Eau Claire Foundation is in the early stages of planning for the development of the Menomonie Street land for its highest and greatest use and in keeping with the donors' wishes — including additional fitness, recreation and athletics facilities for UW-Eau Claire. The focus for the events facility will be on creating a venue that has the flexibility to accommodate a variety of uses, and a portion of the land will be designated for private development of facilities complementary to the events venue, Way said.

"The Foundation and Blugold Real Estate will focus during the 2014-15 academic year to complete the planning, seeking input from students, the university and the general community on how to maximize the benefit of the Sonnentags' transformational gift," Way said.

The Sonnentag Foundation gifts represent investment in the higher education experience of future UW-Eau Claire students, said Sam Fish, UW-Eau Claire student body president.

"The UW-Eau Claire Student Senate is deeply thankful to the Sonnentag Foundation and John and Carolyn Sonnentag for their incredibly generous gifts," Fish said. "Through these gifts, they provide an ideal location for much-needed replacement and enhancement of outdated and overcrowded university event and recreation facilities. Our future students will be able to watch continuous growth and improvement for the university just as I have, and donations from our devoted Blugold alumni will allow for better and more diverse opportunities for our future Blugolds."


University, community goals now within reach

Schmidt said the Sonnentag Foundation's gifts open the doors to opportunity for reaching goals established by both UW-Eau Claire long-range planning and the citizen-based Clear Vision planning process for Eau Claire.

"In our long-range university master-planning process, we established a goal to cooperate with the community to construct, by 2020, a replacement for Zorn Arena at a location in the community rather than on campus," Schmidt said. "Meanwhile, the Clear Vision planning process identified a large events facility as one of the greatest needs of our community. The multipurpose events center that the Sonnentags envision is consistent with both of these goals."

An arts center was the other top need identified through both UW-Eau Claire long-range planning and the Eau Claire Clear Vision process, and public and private partners, including UW-Eau Claire, continue to collaborate on the Confluence project to reach that goal, Schmidt said.

"The Confluence arts center and the larger events center envisioned by the Sonnentags, which would accommodate at least 7,500 people, are complementary projects that, together, meet high-priority needs of the university and the Eau Claire community," Schmidt said. "This new larger venue would meet the growing event facilities needs of the university while also greatly advancing the Eau Claire community's competitiveness in attracting business, entertainment and sports activities."

The new events center's location in close proximity to Hobbs Ice Arena and Carson Park would create an appealing recreation and events district that would further advance the value of the development and its benefit to the university and community, Schmidt said.

"Over the past decade, the city of Eau Claire has made tremendous progress in creating areas for our citizens to gather, enjoy the beauty of our city and be entertained," said Kerry Kincaid, president of the Eau Claire City Council. "This marvelous gift from the Sonnentag

Foundation will help us create another destination that will make Eau Claire the city that others will want to emulate. I can't express enough the collective gratitude of the community for this gift and these plans."

The Sonnentag Foundation gifts are a "game-changer," said Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire.

"For decades, Eau Claire has been challenged by a lack of competitive facilities to host large indoor events," John said. "A multipurpose events facility could mean tens of millions of dollars in new visitor spending annually, which will positively impact restaurants, hotels, attractions and retail outlets, as well as the entire community."

County Materials has begun the process of relocating its Menomonie Street operations, which is expected to be completed by spring 2015.

Also in development are arrangements for the Sonnentag Foundation to purchase the property directly to the east of the County Materials site, currently occupied by Student Transit-Eau Claire Inc. The Sonnentag Foundation would then donate the Student Transit property to Blugold Real Estate so that the area for development of the County Materials Events and Recreation Complex would extend from the County Materials site east to Hobbs Ice Arena, Way said.

Student Transit's owners, Phillip, Ray and Jim Fey, are in the process of securing a new site for their operations. Student Transit's move to a new location is anticipated by September 2015.

"Student Transit and the Fey family are proud to be working with County Materials, Blugold Real Estate and the UW-Eau Claire Foundation on this project," said Phillip Fey, Student Transit president. "We are working on relocating our bus garage and offices to a new location and feel we are well on our way to making this project a reality. We still have a lot of details to work out but feel great about this opportunity."

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