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Gift from the heart

| Juliana Horgan Poquette

Alumni pledge land, money to build major regional events facility

When John and Carolyn Sonnentag were UW-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. Believing it's time for their alma mater and the surrounding community to have a facility that can accommodate 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 in early August that the Sonnentag Foundation has committed to transfer ownership of 21 acres along Menomonie Street in Eau Claire to Blugold Real Estate, a supporting entity 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.

The Sonnentag Foundation's gift represents the largest outright gift to the UW-Eau Claire 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 serves as the site of a multipurpose events center that would accommodate at least 7,500 people.

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, Fla., and formerly of Marathon City, Wis., 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 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 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

In a related development, the Eau Claire YMCA announced in early September that it will partner with the UW-Eau Claire Foundation in the development of the County Materials Event and Recreation Complex. Some of the donated Menomonie Street land will be the site of a new YMCA, to replace the current YMCA facility on Graham Avenue in Eau Claire. In addition to serving area residents, the new YMCA facility will serve as a recreation center for UW-Eau Claire students. Plans call for use agreements between the Foundation and YMCA to share facilities, said Kimera Way, UW-Eau Claire Foundation president. There will be no shared ownership of facilities between the two organizations.

The YMCA also will bring its ongoing collaboration with Mayo Clinic Health System into the County Materials Event and Recreation Complex development. The two organizations reached an agreement two years ago to work together to design innovative ways to meet the future health and wellness needs of the region.

"Collaborating with the university and Mayo Clinic Health System will allow us all to provide a better facility for the students and the community than any of us could provide on our own," said Douglas M. Johnson, president of the YMCA board of directors.

Planning to maximize gift underway

During the 2014-15 academic year, the UW-Eau Claire Foundation is seeking input from students, the university and the general community and planning for the development of the Menomonie Street land for its highest and greatest use and in keeping with the donors' wishes. The events facility will have 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 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 community arts center project to reach that goal, Schmidt said.

The new events center's location in close proximity to Hobbs Ice Center and Carson Park will create an appealing recreation and events district that will 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."

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