City council approves mall terms, most discussion behind closed doors


Sources say the selling price of Wausau Center mall is likely to be less than $5 million

After hearing from numerous civic and business leaders supporting the project, the city council approved new terms more favorable for the city but that also includes new funding to support the mall’s demolition.

Unfortunately for transparency, most of the council’s discussion happened behind closed doors. 

City leaders Tuesday approved 8-3 new terms with mall developer Wausau Opportunity Zone that include changing a $1 million forgivable loan into $660,000 one that must be paid back in $110,000 increments every year. It gives back the Sears parking ramp to the city (it had an option to purchase it under the original agreement). It also eliminates a city position on the mall developer’s board. But it also provides a grant of $3.5 million for the demolition of the Wausau Center mall, and to get those sites “pad ready,” which means the sites are ready for developers to start building on.

The terms don’t address any potential environmental contamination, for which the city is liable and the extent of which is currently unknown. 

The council made the decision to hold much of the discussion around the new terms and a potential legal issue around the previous agreement in closed session, despite much of the info already being public. At least two members voted against going into closed session. The city remained in closed session for more than an hour, and public discussion on the terms that included millions of dollars in grants lasted less than eight minutes. 

City Council Member Tom Kilian first brought the potential legal issues to the council’s attention. Under the state’s Uniformity Clause, municipalities are not allowed to reimburse developers or anyone for property tax. Yet, under the original terms, WOZ was specifically given an amount said in the term sheet to be a reimbursement for taxes, and other city documents point to that amount, $327,000, as being derived from the 2018 mall property tax bill. Those terms were developed and approved by then-mayor Robert Mielke and then-Community Development Director Chris Schock. 

“I’m looking to take positive steps forward to and hope we can open a dialogue about what happened historically,” Kilian says. “I hope we can look at that and improve upon it.” 

Council discussion was light, but public input was almost universally positive, and almost exclusively from area business leaders. Those leaders told the council that the mall project would help revitalize downtown, and make the city an attraction for workforce talent. Council member Lisa Rasmussen praised Mayor Katie Rosenberg for negotiating the new terms, which are a better deal for the city’s taxpayers. Lou Larson said he also appreciated the new terms, but said he had mixed feelings about the project overall. 

Kilian, Larson and Deb Ryan voted against the new terms.

WOZ Project Manager Chuck Ghidorzi previously told City Pages that demolition would likely start in the second quarter of 2021.