EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- A major donation from Blugold alumni means big changes for the city of Eau Claire and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
UW-Eau Claire announced it's received the single largest donation in the university's history on Tuesday. Blugold Alumni, John and Carolyn Sonnentag, who attended UWEC in the 1960's, pledged to the university $10 million worth of land and money.
The donation covers 21 acres of land between Menomonie St. and the Chippewa River across the street from Carson Park. The "County Materials Event and Recreation Complex" will end up there, replacing Zorn Arena. Part of the Sonnentag's $10 million pledge covers construction of the project.
The Sonnentag Foundation is also going to buy the Student Transit Property from the Fey family. It would then donate that land to Blugold Real Estate to extend the complex east, connecting it to Hobbs Ice Arena.
Mike Rindo, vice chancellor of facilities at UW-Eau Claire, said there is no specific figure yet since the project is still in the beginning stages, but as an estimate - he said it could cost upwards of $50 million. He said it would be paid for through philanthropy and an increase in student fees. He said they're not expecting taxpayer money to pay for the facility.
Construction would begin within the next five years for the multipurpose events facility, giving Eau Claire a chance to play host.
"Eau Claire never has the capability to do big major events and I think this will help the people here, it'll help the university draw big name athletes here to participate in sports," said John Sonnentag.
Sonnentag and his wife Carolyn made a comeback to make the announcement, nearly 50 years after graduating from UW-Eau Claire.
"We've been fortunate enough to have this property and we're able to give it to the university," said Carolyn Sonnentag.
Back in the 1960s when the Sonnentags were students, basketball games were played in the Fieldhouse, now called Zorn Arena.
Chancellor James Schmidt said it's time for an upgrade, especially since talks of a new arena began in the 70s. The current Zorn Arena can hold only 3,400 people.
"This is something that's been talked about in the community for decades, Sports Illustrated in 1971 did a feature story on the Blugold basketball team and they pointed out they're playing in an inadequate tiny Fieldhouse. They said in '71 in the next couple years they hope to be in a brand new, 10,000 seat arena in the near future, but the near future after 43 years has finally gotten a little close," said Schmidt.
The County Materials Event and Recreation Complex will hold 7,500 to 8,000 people. The facility would also be a game changer for athletics.
"That affects football, soccer, cross country you name the sport, volleyball, that training center inhibits greatness for our athletes," said UW-Eau Claire Athletics Director Dan Schumacher. "This puts us on the map, and we build an arena of this kind, none of our competition in the Wisconsin league that we competed in WIAC has this type of event center."
Schmidt said currently, the university can't hold a graduation ceremony together.
"We can't even invite our entire faculty together, we need a place that the entire UW community can come together, to celebrate important events like commencement. The community has been asking for a very large venue for large-scale concerts, monster truck rally, boat shows, all the other things that a community of this size ought to have as a basic amenity and attraction," said Schmidt.
Schmidt said the Confluence Project is completely separate from this project.
The UW-Eau Claire Foundation announced plans to build a major events center about a mile from campus across the street from the entrance to Carson Park.
The land is a gift to the UW-Eau Claire foundation from the Sonnentag Foundation, founded by John & Carolyn Sonnentag, who attended UW-Eau Claire in the 1960's.
The Sonnentag Foundation has committed to transfer 21 acres along Menomonie Street to Blugold Real Estate, a subsidiary of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation. The land is owned by County Materials Corp., the Sonnentag's family-owned concrete manufacturing company. The land has been family-owned for three generations.
The gift is the largest outright gift to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation in its nearly 60-year history.
The events center will be named the County Materials Event and Recreation Complex.
The transfer of the land to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation should be completed by the end of 2014. The Sonnentags' intent is the land be used for a multi-purpose events center accommodating at least 7,500 people. It would replace Zorn Arena as UW -Eau Claire's largest venue.
In addition to donating the land to the University, the Sonnentags plan a significant monetary contribution through their foundation to help support the events center. Neil Lipinski, chair of Blugold Real Estate says building the events center will require additional private philanthropy.
The Sonnentag Foundation gifts are contributions to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation's Power of Possible campaign, which is a plan to raise $60 million by the end of 2016, the university's centennial celebration year.
John Sonnentag graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 1966 with business administration & history degrees. Carolyn Sonnentag earned a medical technology degree in 1967.
In addition to the 21 acres owned by County Materials, the Sonnentag Foundation is planning to purchase the property occupied by Student Transit next to the Hobbs Ice Center.
The Sonnentag Foundation will then donate the Student Transit property to Blugold Real Estate. Student Transit owner Phillip Fey says he is proud to work the university and the UW-Eau Claire Foundation on the project. Fey says he is working to find a new location for their bus garage and offices.
UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt says building a replacement for Zorn Arena in the community as opposed to on-campus has been part of the university's long-range master-plan. Their goal is part of UW-Eau Claire's long-range planning and the citizen-based Clear Vision planning process for the city of Eau Claire. Schmidt says the university's goal is to build an events center by 2020, and the Sonnentag Foundation gifts will go a long way in helping the university reach that goal.