Counterpoint: Two council members with very different perspectives weigh in on mall project


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

Wausau Opportunity Zone has announced plans to redevelop the Wausau Center mall that it purchased with funds that included $1 million from the city. It is now asking for another $2 million from the city to tear down the mall and help transform it into a series of mixed use buildings worth tens of millions, and additional public amenities and street improvements.

We gathered two very different perspectives from two city council members — Finance Chair Lisa Rasmussen and Tom Kilian whose district includes the mall. Kilian will host a public input session in his district tonight, 6 pm Thursday at Riverside Park.

Lisa Rasmussen:

Lisa Rasmussen

City Hall

Lisa Rasmussen

Lisa Rasmussen

Wausau has a big decision coming soon.  Recently, plans were introduced for new developments on the mall site with an estimated value near $45 million, all of which will pay property tax.  The mall was once valued near $34 million.  Sadly, those days are over and its current market value is about $3 million.  The plan before us reflects modern priorities.  Work/life balance, a sense of place, easy navigation and connections to the south riverfront, senior housing and live music venues.

The first exciting detail is that the plan “de-malls” the mall, which residents have been hoping to see for years.  The days of large malls hindering traffic flow and outdoor walkability are gone nationwide.   Removing most of the mall with the exception of HOM Furniture and the parking ramps allows the extension of 2nd, 3rd and Jackson Streets back where they were before the mall came. This would create new ways for us to use the area.  People and vehicles would move easily where they cannot today.  Washington St would return to two way traffic and new spaces would be created for a public market and outdoor beer garden that will return land to the community for all to use and enjoy.

Our partner, Wausau Opportunity Zone has been able to time this plan to draw on new educational and business development opportunities by collaborating with the Greater Wausau group and others working to re-use the historic building on Clarks Island for innovative, collaborative programs.  This will bring new jobs, people and commerce to Wausau as we prepare for the industries that will shape the future of our region.

In place of the mall, we’d see mixed use buildings, office spaces and public gathering areas.  While there is a public-private partnership needed to open up Wausau Center and re-create the street grid that was lost when the mall was constructed, it appears the first new building will create substantial return on that investment, along with other buildings proposed in the area.

When our local foundations formed the WOZ group, they invested $2 million to help us gain local control of the mall, re-imagine the area and optimize potential.  It was clear we would need some future partnership to move the area forward.  Site prep and infrastructure are the pieces the city should partner on, since new roads and public spaces benefit everyone, not just a few.  Residents have been asking for solutions for the mall that are not only retail driven.  Recreating the area can grow the jobs and population Wausau needs.  Next month, we continue work on the 2021 budget, prioritizing continued services residents expect and using development dollars to their best potential.  Creating something new and exciting where the mall stands idle is a critical part of that potential.

Multiple public engagement opportunities are coming too.  A public meeting is planned for October 8 at Wausau Center where residents can view the plan in an open house setting.  Shortly after, Wausau will host a public hearing at city hall for residents to offer input in person or by email.  One big plus is the current funding request can be accommodated WITHOUT using general tax levy funds or increasing the city’s general obligation debt.  This is because Wausau has a tax increment district bringing in excess funds that could help pay for it.  Accepting this plan will eliminate annual payments the city is making now under its development agreement to offset current costs of operating the mall.  This costs about $321,000 annually, for which we get nothing if the mall sits as is.  Doing nothing is expensive, and stopping those annual payments makes sense if we can use that money for a plan that is vibrant, taxable and modern.  We have a chance to transform blocks of tired space that are bottoming out in value and costly to sit on.  Adding to historic construction growth Wausau has seen since 2016 as our economy recovers from the pandemic will help Wausau emerge stronger than standing still.  With good planning and partners, we can create new areas to live, work, shop, eat and socialize.  The easiest way to alleviate the tax burden on us all is to get new, taxable properties built here.  This plan launches that largely by using money we already have, some of which we are required to spend on the mall either way.

Lisa Rasmussen, Chairperson of Wausau’s Finance and Capital Improvements & Street Maintenance Committees

Tom Kilian:

Tom Kilian

City Hall

Tom Kilian

Tom Kilian

One of the most surprising retail acts related to the Wausau Mall recently has been that of a few politicians and business people trying to sell the idea to citizens and taxpayers that they should contribute millions in public dollars to the mall’s redevelopment by Wausau Opportunity Zone, Inc. (WOZ) while having little to no say in what occurs. We are told there will be public hearings, but those are often too late in the game, and other process elements like the Joint Review Board have essentially been rubber stamps historically. In effect, while plans to “de-mall” the mall with taxpayer monies move ahead rapidly, in terms of participation, some at City Hall and WOZ continue to “de-public” the public, reducing it to nothing more than a 24/7 ATM for which no pin is apparently required. And like all money machines, the public is expected to pump out cash while remaining relatively silent. 

Well, despite the long local history of public-private endeavors that seem to have been born more out of an oligarchy or plutocracy than a democracy, Wausonians still can and should stand up now, make their voices heard on the mall matter, and make their expectations clear to the alderpersons who are supposed to represent them. If what we are being sold on the mall is another opaque good-old-boys-special with little ability for the public to meaningfully influence the outcome, then let’s not buy it. 

A History of Oligarchy: Rule by a Few, Rather than the Participation of the Many It is rather interesting and ironic that elements of the Wausau Center’s development itself stemmed from secrecy and exclusion. Reportedly, the Wausau Group slowly acquired land for 10 years before making a public announcement in the late 1970s of the mall plans. The influence of, and pressure exerted by, this small conglomerate of powerful local businesspeople also came under scrutiny in the press for their role in the initial incubator project and the River Run Conference Center that was to be built on riverfront property. And remember the mall redevelopment plans discussed a few years ago in closed-door meetings between “city leaders” and CBL without public disclosure of, or involvement in, the plans? If not, I suggest you revisit the 2015 Wausau Daily Herald article “Wausau mall plan revealed only to a few.” Clearly, it is not urban legend, but a reality, that our community has often been treated like a monopoly board – with pieces moved and monetized –  by a small set of the usual wealthy players. But that does not make it right, nor does it make it impervious to change.

Local Control by Whom?: No Seat for the Public at the Table, Even with Public Money on the Table When the mall was recently purchased by WOZ with a city investment of $1 million, nonprofit and philanthropic involvement was highlighted, and many citizens consequently voiced excitement about contributing ideas toward the entity’s stated goal of improving our quality of life. No one at City Hall or from WOZ seemed to clarify for us that citizens’ meaningful participation was never really intended, and that if citizens had a suggestion or vision to benefit the common good, they should keep it, because a “vision” was to be unilaterally developed by the city’s “partner.” I suppose if one were to defend the process to date, it could at least be said that the public does not have to like or support the vision presented, it just has to swallow it and fund it. I will provide no such defense. 

Instead, I would argue that this does not have to be the case if regular folks stand up and demand that their representatives represent them. From my perspective, the city currently has tremendous potential for leverage on what ultimately occurs with the mall redevelopment and the process through which those outcomes are determined – after all, it is the city’s money that is being requested. The real question is: does City Hall have the stomach and spine (or even the desire) to assert itself with the local power establishment to make sure the community’s goals and welfare, and the common good, are recognized and protected? If the private sector would not like the city’s newfound assertiveness, then let it fund its vision with its own money.

The public does have the power to impact local government policy, including the mall redevelopment issue. But that power must be wielded through demands and acts of participation. May democracy and citizen-driven government thrive.  

Tom Kilian is the city council member for District 3, and on the city’s Economic Development Committee.