Parks and recreation is the new business trend

(First published in the December 12, 2019 issue of City Pages)

And about to get a huge boost as local leaders come to understand it’s one of the biggest selling points of Wausau

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Dave Eckmann has a pair of photos to illustrate a pretty stark point. From a hilltop vantage in Wausau, one shows Rib Mountain in the background as a recognizable, pretty panorama to anyone familiar with the area. The second is the same photo, but with Rib Mountain deleted from the background. Suddenly Wausau looks pretty darned boring. It could be anywhere U.S.A.

Eckmann, as Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce CEO/President,  makes the point because outdoor recreation—such as what’s found on Rib Mountain — has become the focus of how local leaders view economic development, including talent attraction.

It’s part of the Economic Development Strategic Plan released by the Chamber earlier this year.  It’s why area leaders supported the nonprofit organization Ironbull and its extreme sports series. It’s why the outdoors is featured in so many recruitment videos by employers.

In fact, the windows at the Medical College of Wisconsin, located in Aspirus Wausau Hospital, were designed specifically to face the mountain to remind students they are minutes from a ski hill and hiking trails, in hopes these doctors-in-training will choose to stay in the area.

And now the outdoors are about to get a boost.

The Wausau/Marathon County Parks’ latest Outdoor Recreation Plan calls for major renovations to the most popular parks, better connections between the parks via foot or bike; and calls for where new parks should go.

Here’s what makes this plan different: At the same time, Wisconsin is updating its master plan for Rib Mountain State Park, specifically to include more outdoor recreation opportunities. The state even is developing a new office of outdoor recreation within the tourism department. Why? Economic development.

The parks plan

The city/county parks plan makes a number of recommendations for nearly every park in the county. Some are small, routine maintenance kinds of things like fixing shelters, bathroom updates, etc.

Others are more major.

One example: the Trappe River Dells Park, land the county has owned for decades but is completely landlocked, with no actual public access. The plan calls for obtaining access either through land acquisition or easements. It could become a county forest unit.

The Outdoor Recreation Plan calls for possibly buying more land around Wausau’s Sunny Vale Park, a park dedicated to softball; and it calls for more soccer fields for Eastbay Sports Complex, buying more land around it, as well as a path connecting the two parking lots.

The plan also seeks more parks in general, especially to address an imbalance in the number of parks in the east, west and center of the county. The western Marathon County has more farmland and fewer parks, says Parks Director Jamie Polley, and that imbalance should be addressed.

Some of the biggest changes called for would happen at Big Eau Pleine Park, near Mosinee, which has playgrounds, miles of trails, and waterfront. The plan calls for the purchase of three adjacent parcels to ensure a continuous shoreline. It also adds things like a horse campground, which the site once had and could have again, Polley says.

And its outdoor recommendations don’t just center around parks. The plan calls for a single comprehensive plan for bicycle/pedestrian corridors, taking all the various bike plans and condensing them into one plan with realistic goals, Polley says.

That’s important — adding shoulders to county highways is expensive, and it doesn’t make sense to add them on roads that are high-speed, high-traffic where a family won’t be likely to use them, Polley says. The main goal is to not only delineate where such trails or on-street facilities would go, but also how they could connect parks and other outdoor recreation facilities, Polley says.

The plan was developed through a series of public input sessions. The main subjects that staff and consultants heard weren’t much of a surprise to Polley. The three big issues:  more mountain biking trails, more pickleball courts, and snowmaking at Nine Mile Forest for the cross country ski trails.

Changing uses

Outdoor recreation plans need to be revisited simply so planners can keep up with changing trends. “There has been a change in the use of parks,” Polley says.

Riverside Park is perhaps a good example. The park for decades had few improvements on it. At the same time, a group of bikers were looking for a place to play bike polo. So the city worked with them to build a bike polo court in the otherwise little-used park, adapting to a new use.

Central Wisconsin Off-Road Cycling Coalition is another great example. This local volunteer-run nonprofit group has now rebuilt trails at Nine Mile Forest, Sylvan Hill Park on the northeast side of Wausau and in Ringle near the Marathon County Landfill.

There’s a local pickleball club, which recently raised the $100,000 needed to add six new courts in Marathon Park. The county had converted some old tennis courts to pickleball and the pickleball club raised the money to add six more. Work began in fall and the courts should be ready to go next spring.

Park use is changing, agrees County Administrator Brad Karger, who is set to retire at the end of this month after seeing 30 years of change. “It used to be that county parks were sedentary places where you’d show up with a picnic basket,” Karger says. “Now they’re soccer complexes, or Marathon Park with so many things, like the art fairs.”

Karger points to Bluegill Bay Park in Rib Mountain, which was an underused park until the county leveraged some environmental stewardship funds to clean up the bay and restore the area into a good fishing spot. “There used to be eight inches of water and eight feet of gunk,” Karger says. “Now when we have a fishing tournament we require a life jacket” because of the depth of the water.

Karger is pretty blunt in his assessment of the county’s biggest challenge going forward, and parks and outdoor recreation will play a big part in that. “The most important issue in the next decade is attracting and retaining a top workforce,” Karger says. “Part of that is having something to do when you’re not working. We’re not going to be able to pay more than other communities. You see when companies are recruiting for jobs, there is a big picture of the 400 Block during concerts on the square.”

The city’s outdoor recreation plays a critical role in how the city markets itself, says Wausau Community Development Director Chris Schock. He points to a recent update to the River’s Edge Trail master plan, which includes increasing connections to recreation. Those include the possibility of a trail leading from the southeast side neighborhood to Thomas Street, which helps connect the neighborhood to the trail that leads past Oak Island, the Kayak Course, Kickbusch Plaza and the new flagship Riverlife Park; as well as continuing the trail south around the Wausau Airport. It also includes plans to link up the city to the Mountain Bay Trail, with a trail from the Eastbay Sports Complex extending south into Schofield.

Stately expansion

The local focus on outdoor recreation focus couldn’t come at a better time. The state DNR is in the process of updating the Rib Mountain State Park Master Plan. Though spurred by Granite Peak Ski Area’s proposed expansion of ski runs on the mountain, state officials saw the need to take a broader view of increasing all recreation possibilities for the park.

To help, the chamber is having an internal meeting soon to gather outdoor groups to discuss the opportunities the new master plan presents, says Renae Krings, Economic Development Specialist with the chamber.

The plan is to position Wausau as an outdoor sports mecca, with groups such as Ironbull races along with mountain bike groups like CWOCC, the ski groups and kayak organizations all playing a part. “There’s an alignment taking place, building a lot of momentum,” Krings says. “It’s a win-win to have all these various groups rally behind the effort.”

And starting in January, the public process will kick off. DNR leaders will host a public input open house to gather input from the public and from user groups. The DNR will develop a draft mater plan in the fall and hope to present a master plan to the Natural Resources Board by winter 2020, according to the DNR’s timeline.

As far as the master plan is concerned, Polley says her department’s role is primarily to look at connections. Though Rib Mountain is a state park, Polley says it’s important for the city/county department to look at how it can connect to the facility — both for neighborhoods nearby and from other park facilities.

And there is a bigger picture: Polley also serves on a DNR stakeholder council that is influencing outdoor recreation in Wisconsin, ensuring Wausau has a voice statewide. That influence could be important as the state’s Department of Tourism develops a new Office of Outdoor Recreation, created through Tony Evers’ biennial budget.

None of this comes without costs of course. That includes in staffing. Consultants estimated the county will need to add at least three full time staff positions to cover the increased demand in services, Polley says. And that’s not including the money that would go into paying for all those recommended improvements in the plan. “I think [the funding] will be a challenge going forward,” Polley says, “But as parks evolve, we need to look at the costs too.”

Those ready to send a tax rant can hold off a second. Paying for those positions will be sought through things like user fees and cost sharing. “We need to be able to justify it.” Polley says.

The commitment to the outdoors, both from local community and business leaders and at the state level, sends a message, Polley says. That recreation is a huge selling point for economic health, not just for the outdoor enthusiasts.

A few of the local parks recommended to see the most improvements in the county’s’ Outdoor Recreation Plan

Big Eau Pleine: This county park near Mosinee is known to mountain bikers, disc golfers, campers and horse riders. The Outdoor Recreation plan calls for a shower building, electrical upgrades to the campgrounds, new playground equipment and road repair. The plan also calls for designated equestrian camping, which is something Big Eau Pleine once had, but no longer does, Polley says. The plan also calls for another nine holes of disc golf, adding to the 18 holes already there, and a whole other campground area.

Dells of the Eau Claire: A gem for hikers, as well as sunbathers on the rock formations in the Eau Claire River during summer months. Recommendations call for updated trail signage, restroom improvements, playground equipment replacement, high bridge repairs and an improvement to the roads that lead to the campgrounds.

Eastbay Sports Complex: One of the newer of the county’s parks, this facility in Wausau’s southeast side was built primarily with soccer in mind, but quickly expanded to include other activities such as lacrosse and the Hmong Festival, which hosts sports such as flag football and volleyball. Plans call for a new open shelter, a path connecting the north and south parking lots, additional lighting, and land acquisitions to expand both the fields and the parking lot.

Marathon Park: Many probably know this as the fairgrounds, but the park in Wausau has so much more, including pickleball courts which are soon to expand. Recommended improvements are extensive. It will mean the continual rehabilitation of historic structures, new playgrounds, renovations to the bandshell, and updating the campground.

Correction: This version corrects the council that Polley serves on and more accurately reflects the influence she will have.