(First published in the October 3, 2019 issue of City Pages)
Wausau approves providing $1 million toward buying Wausau Center mall with a team of local philanthropist
The path has been cleared for a team of two foundations to buy the failing Wausau Center mall later this month.
The project, called Wausau Opportunity Zone Fund, was approved Tuesday night by the Wausau city council. WOZ is contributing $2 million to the purchase, and the city is contributing $1 million plus the Sears building the city purchased for $650,000 in 2016.
With the city’s commitment sealed thanks to the 8-1 vote, WOZ can buy the mall, hire a management team and a redevelopment consultant to find new uses for the building. What that could be remains to be seen, but will likely employ plans already developed by consultants using Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation Funds last year.
The group will also take on maintenance of the mall, including deferred maintenance that’s been lagging under current owner Rialto’s tenure, says Wausau Community Development Director Chris Schock.
Speakers Tuesday were nearly unanimous in their support for the mall, including Chamber CEO Dave Eckmann, county board member Yee Leng Xiong and even Greenheck CEO Jim McIntyre. “This is a great opportunity for the community and its citizens to look at the mall and see what we can do with this site,” McIntyre says. Strong public and private partnerships are something Greenheck executives look for when seeking places to expand to, McIntyre says.
Council Member Dennis Smith, the lone vote against the mall purchase, thanked the foundations for putting together the deal and said they’ve “pulled our chestnuts out of the fire before,” but remained unconvinced that it was financially a good deal for the city. He said the districts being used are underwater and that the city would maintain ownership of the parking garages, which are losing money. He said the deal was well-intentioned, but was similar to the saying the titanic was under new management after it had just hit an iceberg. “The results aren’t going to change,” Smith said.
But Council President Lisa Rasmussen said the mall deal was an important step forward for the city. “Wausau Center has been an economic engine for 30 years,” Rasmussen said Tuesday. “We have an opportunity to make a brave decision. The alternative is nothing but painful.”