Mosinee City Administrator Jeff Gates and Mayor Brent Jacobson
Tim Kennedy has seen downtown Mosinee go through a few phases of life. When he opened Forms Specialists Printing 31 years ago, downtown was bustling with life. There was a meat market, a book store, a grocery store, and other various successful businesses.
As the years went on, many of those businesses went away. Vacant buildings fell into disrepair. What was once a downtown full of life became, in no uncertain terms, a ghost town. There wasn’t a singular business that could drive people to the downtown area or inspire start-ups to come into the city.
That’s why Kennedy and other business owners are excited about the Mosinee Brewing Company development, which is close to securing the funding it needs to open next fall. The $1.7 million project on Fourth Street includes extensive interior and exterior renovations to the former Discount Liquidators building. Business and city leaders believe the brewery could be the catalyst for their vision: redeveloping downtown Mosinee into a charming destination, not just a spot to drive by on your way to Marshfield or Wausau.
“The brewery is going to hopefully be the anchor for getting people to downtown,” says City Administrator Jeff Gates.
The groundwork is there for Mosinee to have a successful downtown. It’s only one mile from Hwy. 51. Main Street is State Hwy. 153. City officials estimate 14,000 cars drive through downtown on a given weekday.
The problem? Other than a few restaurants, there aren’t businesses or attractions in the heart of Mosinee that would entice all those travelers to stop and spend some time.
“Historically, downtown Mosinee has had hair salons and restaurants, and nothing else,” says Heidi Miller, owner of Created Anew Designs.
Miller moved her graphic design and quilting business to downtown Mosinee last summer. She says the biggest challenge has been building awareness of her location.
“There’s financial offices or businesses that are open one day a week or by appointment,” Miller says of other places nearby. “I think the perception is that there’s nothing going on downtown when there is stuff going on, but people just don’t know about it.”
Like in most small cities, some of Mosinee’s issues began when big box stores started opening in the Wausau area. Local businesses lost customers.
Miller says one of her quilting customers once owned a bookstore in downtown Mosinee. It became harder and harder for her to compete against the big box stores, until eventually she closed her business. “Mosinee has become a pass-through town because there aren’t those little, unique and niche businesses that would bring you here,” Miller says.
Mosinee, like many small Wisconsin cities, is in the process of rethinking how it attracts both tourists and new residents. Its leaders are leaning toward a model used successfully in other small communities: Make the town itself a charming, quaint attraction. Think New Glarus or Bayfield, or even a smaller town like Stockholm on the Mississippi River in western Wisconsin.
“Is there potential? Oh my goodness, yes! I wouldn’t have my business here if I didn’t think there wasn’t,” Miller says.
Getting things started
The planned revitalization of downtown Mosinee began in 2013 when the city established tax increment finance (TIF) district No. 2, which will last until 2040. This allows the city to offer incentives to businesses that move in, expand or improve, using the tax value increment they create to pay for the development’s original investment.
Jacobson: “One of the philosophies is that if you build it, they will come. My idea is that if you clean it up, that’s a good start.”
Mayor Brent Jacobson was a skeptic of TIF districts when he came into office into 2015, but came to realize that if properly managed, it’s the best financing mechanism out there for a municipality like Mosinee. The shared revenue Mosinee receives from the state has decreased by $123,000 since 2003, or nearly 20%. State-imposed levy limits create an additional challenge for cities looking to increase, or at least protect, their tax base.
That’s why the brewery development is crucial for Mosinee and its future plans. The long-vacant building at 401 4th St.—on the corner of the main intersection—originally was eyed for North Abbey Brewing to open there in January 2014.
But after delays in renovations and then a legal battle between the two owners, North Abbey never came to fruition. Mosinee Brewing Company owner Monk Bunk LLC acquired the building in December 2015 and has spent the last two years coming up with a business plan for the property.
A number of financial issues need to fall into place, especially since the project is estimated to cost $1.7 million and would use $240,000 of city TIF funds over 10 years. In order to get those TIF funds the brewery has to open by October 2018.
While that price tag might seem enormous for a small city like Mosinee, that’s par for course for old buildings, which tend to need a lot of upgrades and repairs, from interior and exterior, to HVAC. Which of course is why those buildings remain vacant.
“Unfortunately, it’s almost better for someone to build something new or move into a place that’s been updated,” Miller says about why Mosinee needs to offer incentives. “I think the city has the right intentions in mind… if the building hasn’t been updated to accommodate for some of those things, it’s expensive to rent, heat, and fix up.”
The city has done some work in making a new building possible for an interested party. It acquired and demolished properties in downtown (at the corner of Fourth St. and Pine St.) and to the east (an old grocery store building across the Wisconsin River near the paper mill). Now those parcels are available for a developer.
To help business owners improve the look of their buildings, Mosinee has stepped in with its facade improvements grant program. Businesses can apply for a grant from the city, not to exceed 50% of the project’s total cost, with a maximum award of $30,000 per project.
Jacobson says a few businesses already have taken advantage of the program, instituted in 2013 with the goal to spur rehabilitation of building exteriors and create a more charming aesthetic overall in Mosinee.
“One of the philosophies is that if you build it, they will come. My idea is that if you clean it up, that’s a good start,” Jacobson says.
Becoming that quaint town
Jacobson is somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to Mosinee city government. At 33 years old, he’s very young compared to most of the city council members and city leaders who are in their 50s, 60s, or 70s.
Kennedy says Jacobson brings exactly what Mosinee needs: a fresh perspective. “The people I get together with are very excited to have Brent in office. He has some push,” Kennedy says.
For example, as soon as he took office Jacobson took note of the entrance to Mosinee from Hwy. 51: A former grocery store was still standing as a blighted, vacant building; the roundabout on Hwy. 153 leading into downtown was a chunk of gravel with a dead tree in the middle; the bridge over the Wisconsin River was plain.
That changed quickly. The former grocery store is gone, Mosinee spent $40,000 on landscaping and cleaning up the roundabout, and it installed banners on the bridge to welcome people into town.
After those city improvements, businesses followed suit. Eight businesses have taken advantage of the city’s façade improvement program so far, investing an estimated $200,000, says City Administrator Jeff Gates.
Jacobson’s next goal is to redo 20-year-old sidewalks in downtown, because appearances make a difference when trying to inspire development. “A vibrant downtown is extremely important because if we’re going to get people to come and live in small town Mosinee at my age, then you want to have some options for them,” Jacobson says.
Mosinee is just like the rest of the Wausau area in wanting to attract young people to its community. Having unique businesses are certainly a way to start. But even more importantly, you need places for those people to live. Jacobson says there’s a nine-unit apartment complex being built in the city, and that’s a good start in his mind.
The changes in the downtown area are only the beginning. Another part of the city that has taken shape over the past few years has been the Wisconsin Riverwoods Trail, which stretches from the bridge over the Wisconsin River to the western boundary of the city. Mosinee finished the second phase of the 1.5-mile trail this year and sees users of the trail all year round.
The hope is that quaint, but transformative changes will come to Mosinee. The Mosinee Brewing Company development could be the catalyst, but no one will know for sure until the brewery sets up shop.
“Is there potential? Yes. Is the government trying? Yes. Is anything happening? Not yet,” Miller says. “Then again, I’m hopeful. It’s hard to put it into words, but I’m hopeful.”