A campus of non-profits could help solve the homesslessness problem in Wausau


B.C. Kowalski

Kevin Noel and Brian Gumness

Donna Ambrose is used to seeing people walk to The Neighbors’ Place to pick up food from the pantry, but one in particular really surprised her — a young woman with three pre-school aged girls, who had walked four miles to the east side Scott Street non-profit. 

Four miles with small children just to get the groceries they need. It’s something that’s been exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic, the Neighbors’ Place director explains. Before, clients could choose the amount of groceries they need while stopping by the food pantry in person — in other words, if they’d walked or biked, they could choose an amount they could easily carry. But in the era of social distancing, staff now prepares a box of groceries so they can be picked up without anyone stepping foot inside the building. A line of cars on Scott Street await their grocery box as volunteers bring them from the warehouse.

But that can be a problem for folks who are on foot and might struggle to carry the amount contained in the boxes, Ambrose explains. They’ve tried some other solutions such as making deliveries or providing carts for some of their clients. And some are just taking fewer groceries than they need. The Neighbors’ Place is not on a bus line, so for those who don’t drive, getting there can be difficult. 

But another solution is on the horizon — not just for the Neighbors’ Place, but for many area non-profits. In development over the course of 18 months or so, and first reported by City Pages last summer, the public got its first look at what the Community Partners Campus could look like. The campus was among four presented at the city’s Economic Development Committee last week for the city-owned 1300 Cleveland Ave, which was once the city’s business incubator and Connor Forest Industries before that. 

Though no action was taken, committee members overwhelmingly favored the Partners Campus project. First developed by Brian Gumness and Kevin Noel, the project involves nearly a dozen non-profits. The concept is simple: Take all these non-profits spread out throughout the city and put them in one place. Essentially, it would be a one-stop shop for someone in need of services. 

Why is that important? The non-profits involved serve low-income and homeless individuals, many who have trouble with transportation. That’s one reason the Cleveland Avenue location is ideal, Gumness explained to City Pages. It’s on a bus line. And even if someone finds another means to get there – say, hitches a ride from someone, or perhaps is taken there by the police following a crisis or incident — at least there would only be one destination, not several. That might put services out of reach of someone. 

Going on in parallel to the Community Partners Campus project is a complete rehaul of how homelessness is addressed in Marathon County. Ben Lee, United Way’s community impact director, says the Housing and Homelessness Coalition has been dissolved, folded along with the North Central Continuum of Care into a new task force created by Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven last October. 

Lee told City Pages there were three separate groups all essentially aligned toward the same goals but working apart, and with different restrictions. There were committees and subcommittees, and a lot of meetings. But not the kind of progress needed to truly address homelessness in the community.

But an issue that came up in Wausau last October brought the homelessness problem to the public light. An ordinance that would have allowed police to boot anyone loitering in the city parking ramps brought cries from the community that the city was targeting homeless people without offering a solution. The task force was part of the answer to finding that solution. 

The campus was already in the works by the time the parking ramp issue hit fever pitch, but the timing was good. It brought the issue to the forefront, sparked changes in how homelessness would be tackled, and comes at a time when public support for addressing the issue is high. 

It could be a true game changer for the Wausau area.

Tackling homelessness in Wausau  

The new task force has five main goals, Lee explains. It is designed to be nimble and adaptive, and be able to make decisions and changes more quickly than other types of organizations. In other words, a smaller, lighter ship that turns a lot faster. The consolidation takes 105 people between the three organizations and distills it down to a 15-member task force. 

The remaining folks aren’t out in the cold, Lee explains. They will be added to a mailing list and called upon as needed to make up work groups, and advocate for public policy initiatives that come out of the group. 

The group’s five main tasks are this: ensure efficiencies between all the area non-profits and agencies, and make sure they’re working together well; increase the numbers of outreach case managers in the county, which are sorely lacking right now; advocate for public policy around affordable housing; increase the amount of transitional housing for those coming from jail or from being homeless; utilize case managers to focus on helping individuals maintain employment and financial stability. 

The new task force creates a hyper-focused approach with measurable goals, something that helps ensure an organization accomplishes its mission. Marathon County itself took this approach in its latest strategic plan, for example. 

Reading through the list, it’s not hard to see that the Community Partners Campus would address several of those goals; directly, in addressing the efficiencies between agencies, and creating transitional housing which is in future phases of the plan.

The Community Partners Campus


B.C. Kowalski

Kevin Noel (from left), Donna Ambrose and Brian Gumness

The first phase of the plan would see a 30,000-square-foot building erected on the 6.9 acre site, which would house 8-15 non-profit services, according to the plan the group submitted to the city. 

Phase II, within the next five years, would see another 20,000-square-foot building go up on the property, helping to expand the non-profits partnered in the project. Phase III would see a driveway constructed to kick off the construction of transitional housing that would help those released from jail or prison, or from being homeless. It would also allow for the possibility of more standalone buildings to house more non-profits, or the possibility of other services such as vocational training or affordable child care. 

The first building would be just south of the current St. Vincent de Paul, which is also considered a partner, though it’s already located there, Gumness says. It’s also somewhat centrally located, on a bus line and is accessible via bike lanes. 

The first partners for the campus include The Neighbors’ Place, First Presbyterian’s Free Clinic, Catholic Charities, NorthCentral Community Action Program, Wausau Police Department Victim Service Unit, Blessings in a Backpack and Wausau Area Mobile Meals. Also included would be services from organizations such as mental health care North Central Health Care and Marathon County Health Department, job services and financial education. 

The first building will cost around $6.5 million, Gumness tells City Pages; future phases haven’t been estimated yet. Fundraising hasn’t officially begun yet, Gumness says, but local foundations and the business community have been very receptive to the concept and there is already a lot of quiet support for the project, he says. “I can tell you they were really receptive right off the bat,” Gumness says.

Wausau’s non-profit need

Ambrose explains the need for the space succinctly – they’re not only outgrowing their space, but running their own space takes up a lot of time in dealing with building issues, getting things repaired, etc. 

Being a food pantry isn’t something the space was designed for, Ambrose told City Pages. The space isn’t refrigerated, and controlling the temperature to keep food cold to keep it from spoiling is a challenge. And it wasn’t designed to control the flow of traffic of people coming into and out of the space. 

At the campus, the space Neighbors’ Place will be located in will be designed for its purposes — and they will be a tenant, paying rent. That will free up a lot of time and energy spent on building maintenance and administration so that labor can instead go toward helping people, Ambrose says. “To be in a more modern, energy efficient space would be a huge relief, Ambrose says. 

The central location is great for clients, and it’s also great for Neighbors’ Place staff. If they identify a resource a client might need, it will be a lot easier to send them down the hall rather than across town, since so many of the clients the Neighbors’ Place serves don’t have access to transportation. 

One of those services down the hall is The First Presbyterian Free Clinic. Originally planned to be located in an area inside the First Presbyterian Church of Wausau, as first reported by City Pages, the clinic eventually opened in Catholic Charities one day per week to serve clients there when the warming shelter is open, says founder Jeffrey Todd. 

The clinic has operated at Catholic Charities the past two winters one day per week, including this one as Catholic Charities’ warming center moved first to the Marathon County Youth Building and then to the YWCA building at the end of April.

The new clinic would be far more robust, Todd tells City Pages. The clinic would include 3,000 square feet of space and would fill a need Wausau has had for a while. There are more than 100 free clinics in Wisconsin, and ones as close as Merrill and Marshfield, but none in Wausau. Todd says the free clinic at the Community Partners Campus would change that. 

The clinic can handle just about anything an outpatient clinic could, Todd says, including treating hypertension, asthma, diabetes.

The new clinic will operate several days per week, Todd says, and will be more widely available – generally to patients with incomes below 250% of the poverty rates. That covers probably some 12,000 people in the county Todd says. That number might increase as the unemployment numbers continue to grow. 

Staffing won’t be a problem, Todd says. Doctors, nurses and physicians assistants have been chomping at the bit to volunteer when they get the clinic off the ground, Todd says. 

The first attempt of creating the Community Partners Campus was the Wausau Daily Herald building, located across Scott Street from The Neighbors’ Place’s current building. But organizers were never able to come to a price, Gumness told City Pages. 

About six months ago the Cleveland Avenue site popped up on Gumness and Noel’s radar, and a plan was hatched. 

Gumness says the organization would make the space available to non-profits at below market rate, allowing the organizations to spend more time and resources toward helping their clients. 

If the Community Partners Campus proposal wasn’t ultimately selected for the Cleveland Avenue site, the project would have to move elsewhere – but Gumness can’t imagine where that would be. There aren’t a lot of open spaces up for sale in such a central location, on a bus line and with room to expand that would allow for those future phases that include transitional housing. 

The group is hoping to have public information meetings with the neighborhood, and would have already if not for covid social distancing restrictions. But so far the project has received nothing but support. 

A lot of that stems from last October, in what started as a disagreement about parking ramps and homelessness led to a broader discussion about homelessness in Wausau and how to address it. “I think the conversation the city had and is having with different organizations to figure out ways to solve homelessness in our community has also led to momentum and excitement toward our efforts,” Gumness says.