Wausau Club 101316

Melinda Roberts

Wausau Club 101316

The Wausau Club, pictured in October 2016, is one of an increasing number of empty buildings in the city.

On Oct. 21, a crowd will walk into the former Wausau Club, empty since the once bustling social center, ballroom and restaurant closed in 2005. The event drawing them in next week is Wausau SOUP, the first of its kind in the area, but based on similar events happening across the country where entrepreneurs or community activists pitch ideas to prospective funders. It’ll be the first time in more than a decade that visitors will congregate in the historic building.

Once past the iconic front door columns they’ll see an elaborate space that once catered to the wealthiest families and businesses in Wausau. They’ll walk under the red ceiling of the ballroom with its green supporting arches, its stage area and elaborate chandeliers.

Many in Wausau have never been inside the building, either because they haven’t been in town long enough, or because they didn’t circulate among the elite crowd. For many coming there for SOUP, it’s a first look at this beautiful, but vacant building.

That’s exactly the point, says Nick O’Brien, organizer of the event. He plans to hold these crowd-funding events quarterly inside the empty but interesting buildings around Wausau.

As the community engagement specialist at McDevco (Marathon County Economic Development Corp.), O’Brien has toured many of these locations, and he was struck by the large number of beautiful, unoccupied buildings in Wausau—places people see only from the outside, if they notice them at all.

Truthfully, there are a lot of empty buildings that seem full of potential. Many have historic value; others are in attractive locations. But what good is that potential if few people know about them?

The city is trying to change that, says Chris Schock, interim community development director, by taking an aggressive approach to buying vacant buildings and enticing developers to find new uses for them.

Holding a building for best-possible use is not uncommon—Wausau owned the Federal Building, across the street from the library, for years before it was bought by an apartment developer, and such purchases were key to the east riverfront development, now underway. Wausau has several properties in its holding portfolio, including:

•   Westside Battery building on First Avenue, just off Stewart Avenue (purchase pending).

•   The empty lot (former L&S Printing) next to Westside Battery

•   Former Sears building at Wausau Center mall ($700,000 purchase pending)

•   Wausau Club (donated to the city in 2013)

•   Sav-O Supply building on First Street, near the riverfront and Bridge Street (city owned since 2012, in the process of becoming privately developed apartments)

Critics might argue that the city shouldn’t get involved in such real estate game. Schock argues that redevelopment is a key component of what cities do to help make their communities attractive to future residents and businesses.

Further, there’s viral blight to consider. Buildings can be so far gone that no developer will touch them on their own, which in turn threatens the surrounding property values.

Fixing historic property can be especially expensive, with higher construction costs and a lower return on investment. Persuading developers to take on a such a project can come down to two different things, says Mark Craig, manager of Compass Property, which owns several high profile properties in downtown Wausau. Either the city steps in with incentives to make the financials work, or the developer has a connection with the community.

Craig says that was the case with the Jefferson Street Inn and the Palladian—both expensive downtown projects that were exceptionally complicated to negotiate. (The Palladian condos cost about $11 million and the Jefferson Street Inn and Gateway project cost $13 million.) They happened because Compass Property owner John Noel is from Wausau and wanted to improve the city’s downtown, Craig says.

Cities also step in because time is not on their side.

It’s important to get buildings before they’re too far gone, says Frantz Community Investors owner Tom Frantz. Old building renovations comprise about 70% of the company’s projects (Its East Riverfront Development in Wausau is one of the 30% that aren’t renovations.)

Frantz says buildings that sit empty tend to develop leaking roofs and other maintenance issues, complicated by the freezing and thawing in this climate. Pretty soon, those buildings are too damaged to save. That’s why it makes sense for Wausau to aggressively buy and market these buildings, Frantz says.

Wausau has seen success in such redevelopment projects. The Federal Lofts apartments were built in the former federal building that originally housed courtrooms and congressional offices. The city owned the building for years before finally finding a suitable developer.

On the other hand, the city lost around $175,000 when it helped private owners redevelop the old, vacant Rogers Theater into a downtown nightclub in 2007. The city didn’t purchase the building, but provided loan funding for the project, which went bankrupt a few years later. Under new ownership, the building briefly reopened as a nightclub but now belongs to Downtown Mission Church (as a nonprofit, the church is exempt from property taxes on the building at 310 N. Fourth St).

Other projects are in the works. The city finally has a deal for the former Sav-O Supply to transform the longtime eyesore into Badger Lofts, a 29-unit loft-style apartment housing.

Many other large and/or notable vacant buildings remain in private hands. The former Wisconsin Public Service building on Clark’s Island on the Wisconsin River is a great example. Located off Washington Street, just west of Wausau Center mall, the old brick building is gorgeous, and the interior remarkable with tall, industrial ceilings, hardwood floors and intricate staircases. With its mix of wood and brick walls, it’s hard to believe someone hasn’t found a use for such a cool quasi-industrial space. The building itself can’t be sold because of the nearby power lines and infrastructure of the dam, but it can be leased.

The former Kleinheinz Dairy, just north of Stewart Avenue on Second Avenue, is another example. Vacant for more than 13 years, the large brick complex was built more than a century ago, and its current owner is trying to market it for redevelopment. The former dairy business employed over 90 workers.

And for the first time in decades, the city’s two historic train depots now sit empty. The downtown depot on Washington Street until recently housed Wausau Health Services addiction clinic that moved earlier this year to the Third Street Lifestyle Center. The depot on Grant Street next to Hiawatha Lounge most recently housed a used appliance shop. The interior is exquisite, with ornately carved wooden ceilings, window and door treatments.

It’s hard to imagine such gems behind closed doors. Seeing is believing. And O’Brien firmly believes that getting people through the doors of these vacant buildings will spark ideas in the right people.


Wausau Club

309 McClellan St. • Built in 1865

Current owner: City of Wausau

Vacant since 2004

The city has gone through three requests for proposals, including the latest last month. The latest proposal would turn the club into a privately run contemporary art museum, event space, and art studio owned by David Hummer, the prospective developer. The city is expected to decide on Hummer’s proposal in November.

On Friday, Oct. 21 at 6 pm it will be the site for the first Wausau Soup. This crowd-funding event is modeled after Shark Tank. Attendees will hear four pitches for business or community projects, then vote on which they think is the best. Attendees will buy soup, and the money raised will help fund the winning project.

Northwestern Line Train Depot

Washington Street Depot 101316

B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

Washington Street Depot 101316

The Washington Street Depot was once home to Billy Moy’s Chinese Restaurant, but that closed decades ago.

209 W. Washington St. • Built in 1899

Current owner: Billy Moy

Vacant since summer 2016. Not for sale, currently space for lease

The property was left vacant after Wausau Health Clinic moved into the Washington Square building. It had once been the site of Billy Moy’s restaurant and was Marathon Travel Agency.

Milwaukee Road/Hiawatha Line Train Depot

720 Grant St. • Built in 1901

Grant Street Depot 101316

B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

Grant Street Depot 101316

The depot on Grant Street last housed a used appliance store, but has been empty for months.

Current owner: Kevin and Susan Shibilski

Vacant since 2015. Not currently for sale, though it was on the market for nearly a year

The depot stopped serving passengers in 1970, and was donated to the Boy Scouts in 1980. They later left the building, which then housed the Head Start offices. The latest business inside was a used appliance shop that closed last year.

Wisconsin Valley Electric building

1 Clark's Island 101316

B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

1 Clark’s Island 101316

This building can’t be sold, but could be rented, and has a unique, beautiful interior.

1 Clark’s Island • Built in 1901

Current owner: Wisconsin Public Service

Vacant for about a decade, previously the corporate office of Wausau Paper

Tucked behind the train depot along the Wisconsin River, this architecturally interesting building can’t be sold because of federal energy regulations related to the nearby power lines and infrastructure, though the space can be leased.

Masonic Temple

130 First St. • Built in 1973

The Masonic Temple

B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

The Masonic Temple

The Masonic Temple is in ideal location, near the mall, the river and the Marathon County Public Library.

Current owner: Wausau Masons club

Nearly vacant and for sale. The United Way offices moved out a few years ago.

The large building is greatly underused and has been for a long time. The Masons still use it, but want to downsize.

West Side Battery and Electric

West Side Battery 101316

B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

West Side Battery 101316

The city already owns the property adjacent to West Side Battery on First Avenue.

415 First Ave. • Built in 1953

Current owner: City of Wausau (pending)

The city soon will close on the building; it also owns the former L&S Printing lot next to it. The city will be marketing both though an RFP process after it closes on the building.

Kleinheinz Dairy

Kleinheinz Dairy 101316

B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

Kleinheinz Dairy 101316

The former Kleinheinz Dairy is being marketed for redevelopment.

175 Second Ave. • Built in 1924

Current owner: Christine Van De Yacht

Vacant since 2003, Available for lease

Van De Yacht is marketing the large brick structure for redevelopment.


VFW 101316

B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

VFW 101316

The VFW building is on River Drive in Wausau.

388 River Dr. • Built in 1976

Current owner: Burns Post 388 VFW

Lounge closed since 2015, currently for sale

The county at one point expressed interest in possibly purchasing this high-profile property next to Oak Island Park, but ultimately passed.