Plans being crafted for former Wausau Center Mall site
It's been just over a year since the Wausau Center Mall closed its doors for good, with demolition soon after.
Now many are wondering where things stand with the planned multi-million-dollar redevelopment project.
"We took control of this (WOZ) in partnership with the city, we bought this back on February 4th of 2020", said Dave Eckmann the Director of the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce and President of the Wausau Opportunity Zone(WOZ) Inc. "This is 7.2 acres."
Now WOZ is reimagining the downtown area, hoping to bring new life to the site.
For Eckmann, the vision is clear.
"We've got the property down in terms of infrastructure, the DNR placed a closure report on it for the site, so it's clean, and right now we're just working on a process with a potential developer that is looking to put a significant $40 million investment here, downtown," he said.
Due to a non-disclosure agreement, that potential developer is unknown to the public as city officials now navigate a lengthy legal process.
"When we're in negotiations, we don't want to pin the developer or the city to certain obligations or create a public misunderstanding. It is quiet right now, and it's almost painful to be quiet, but we're excited to bring this forward and get everything ironed out before we bring it to the public," said Liz Brodeck, the Economic Developer for the city.
Breaking ground and redevelopment
Breaking ground on the land that once was home to the Wausau Center Mall could come in next couple of months.
"Our goal is that we may be scratching the soil in the fall, October-November... but there are a lot of things that have to work from now until then," said Eckmann. "It will have multi-family market-rate housing for people to live, young people and families.
The goal of the multi-year project is to attract young professionals and keep people here.
"If you want a thriving downtown, you need to have 12 to 15 percent of your population living downtown, at the time when we did the study on it it was maybe 3 percent, so this will have a big difference," said Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg.
"They need this, all these businesses here need this, the city needs this," said Eckmann. "If your downtown dies, the city dies, especially in this environment with 21st-century talent.
What does this mean for taxpayers?
"What we're looking at right now, is anywhere on the low end it would generate approximately 486 thousand dollars in new taxes, on the high end it would be double that, so we're looking at a huge tax increase to the tax-base of the area which is really just good for everybody, it kind of alleviates everyone's burden a little bit," Brodeck said. "If we use TIFF for this which is being proposed it would not take away from the general pot right now, it gets capped at the level it's at right now and the new increment goes to help finance the development."
With years until the vision could be complete, others are concerned about the taxpayer money being poured into the project as well as transparency along the way.
"The city of Wausau is eyes deep in millions of dollars of subsidies and were sitting in front of a demolished area where nothing is happening," said Tom Kilian Wausau District 3 Alderperson. "There is a concern about the manner in which public money is being spent."
"Even if things are slower to get to a successful point, I think it would help if the public knew what the heck was going on, he added. "I'd like to see the success we were promised.
Business owners in the downtown area say they excited for the redevelopment.
Contrell Wraggs is a Wausau native who opened Eboni Fashions on North Third Street in March near the redevelopment site, he says he welcomes the transition.
"We can't continue to stay in the past, because if we continue to stay in the past...we're going to get left back there," said Wraggs. "Instead of going to take our hard-earned money and increasing another city's revenue, why not keep it here."
Leaders say patience and trust are key in a process like this.
"In general, its hard for people to watch the process of government, especially as it relates to working with these other organizations. it's slower than anybody would wish... It does take a bit of extra time, but I'm excited to see what we will see with the residential and the Children's Imaginarium, right here in downtown Wausau," Rosenberg said.
The project is a five to six year process, an agreement with the developer could come sometime this summer.
At that point, discussions on the project will ramp up. City leaders say one of their next steps is addressing the JC Penny block, they'll talk about that in their meeting next week.