As Bill Duncanson wraps up his long career as director of Wausau/Marathon County Parks, he notes how parks have changed from being “nice-to-have” to now a crucial piece of economic development
Bill Duncanson will retire in early 2018 after 25 years as parks director for Wausau and Marathon County. During that time, parks went from something nice to have, to an important piece of economic development.
In the summer of 1976 Bill Duncanson found himself setting a fire line in a national forest in northern California. Three separate fires had raged into a giant one, and Duncanson, who had just taken a job with a national forest in Minnesota, was called back to help with this crisis out west.
Only a week before, he’d been the one to tell a group of seasoned firefighting veterans that Elvis had died the week prior. They’d been in the forest fighting fires and hadn’t heard. Many of these hardened firemen broke down in tears.
It was Duncanson’s turn to fight the fire now, and he and a crew headed deep into the wilderness toward the inferno. On one of the last days of his tour, the fire grew into a full inferno, and there was no way to outrun it. The only option was to retreat to a clearing they’d set and ride out the fire in their aluminum tents while the fire raged over them.
The weather helped. A rain storm broke out that night and doused the fire into submission. Duncanson and the rest of the crews hiked out the next day—it happened to be his birthday.
That’s one of the memories the Wausau/Marathon County Parks, Recreation and Forestry director looks back on in a career that has spanned nearly four decades and several states. Duncanson will retire in February or March, and the search is underway for his replacement.
Duncanson’s life began in Wausau, where his love of parks and outdoor space grew, and it’s where he will wrap up his career with the biggest public parks project in Wausau history, and potentially its most impactful: the Riverlife development. It’s perhaps a fitting final project for someone whose training is in landscape architecture and took him from Wausau to the dunes of the southwest back to the forests of the Midwest and back to Wausau.
The span of Duncanson’s career points to the changing nature of parks in how they’re used and valued.
People in the know always have understood the economic impact of parks. But back in 1986 when Duncanson started in Wausau as assistant parks director, few understood the true economic value of parks, or their potential. Parks were nice to have, but the first thing to cut if money was tight. Today, economic development experts consider parks to be crucial to business growth and workforce recruitment.
The Riverlife project in Wausau illustrates, maybe more than any other project in city history, how parks now are talked about in the same breath as economic vitality. It’s the biggest private development project in Wausau’s history and taking place in conjunction with its biggest parks project.
There was never the idea that, well, if a company comes in and develops the riverfront land, then maybe the city will think about adding some park space there. It was the opposite: The riverfront park was crucial to selling the residential and commercial buildings currently under construction there, just north of downtown. The public-private aspects were developed in tandem in a way that would have been unthinkable two or three decades ago.
Riverlife is only the beginning of that concept in Wausau, says Community Development Director Christian Schock.
“I think there is a greater appreciation in development circles for a sense of place as a whole, and the Riverlife Project is a good example of that,” Schock says. “We’re going to need to do a lot more than just that.”
With Duncanson set to retire in early 2018, the Riverlife project will be completed with someone else at the helm. But Duncanson can look there and see— much like the 400 Block— not just another park, but something that transformed Wausau.
Sense of place
The lighted bike bridge is a centerpiece of the Riverlife project, which combines public and private projects into one development.
The River’s Edge Trail is a project that Duncanson worked on his entire tenure as parks director, which began in 1992. The east side of the trail, which runs from Oak Island Park to way past Bridge Street, was completed this spring, and already sees plenty of daily use. Portions of the trail exist on the west side, but need crucial easements before it can be complete.
Trails, like parks, are now seen as worth more than just face value. According to a study by journal Health Promotion Practices, for every dollar spent on parks trails, there’s a $3 reduction in health care costs.
It’s easy to find communities that have transformed themselves by improving their public parks and facilities. Chattanooga, Tenn. is a good example. In the 1980s, the city was polluted, crime-filled and losing people as unemployment skyrocketed, according to a study from the American Planning Association. The city, by partnering with businesses and community groups, invested in public parks and trails and worked to clean up pollution. Property values grew, increasing county/city tax revenue by nearly $600,000 from 1988 to 1996. The move toward improving public spaces helped reverse a decade-long decline, and the city’s population has grown ever since.
Pew Research shows that the millennial generation tends to be more concerned about the place they’re moving to rather than the specific job they’re taking. But quality of life has been a concern well before today’s 20-somethings came of age. A survey by research firm KMPG from 1998 of more than 1,200 technology workers found that a community’s quality of life increased the attractiveness of a job by 33%. Though millennials are the demographic group of today, people of all ages care about a sense of place, of which parks are a major player.
Marathon County as a whole is on board with that concept. County Administrator Brad Karger says in his early days with local government, elected leaders saw parks as one of the go-to places to make budget cuts. “It used to be the easiest thing to cut,” Karger says. “Now, no one would.”
It’s not a leap to suggest that one of the biggest projects that happened in Wausau during Bill Duncanson’s career here was the 400 Block’s development. When it was first conceived in the 1990s to raze the buildings on that block, there were plenty of naysayers, many calling for more parking spaces not green park space.
The 400 Block perfectly illustrates the concept of placemaking and how it spurs both economic and workforce development, says Wausau River District Executive Director Liz Brodek. She recalls an incident when she moved to town four years ago. She and friends were dining at Townies, which overlooks the 400 Block, and she saw a man with his son playing football in this park in the middle of downtown. She couldn’t imagine that happening in her hometown of Milwaukee, Brodek says, and it left the impression she had chosen the right place to live.
The Wausau River District has been named one of the top ten Main Street communities as a finalist for the Great American Main Street Communities award for two years in a row now, and the 400 Block park is a big part of that, Brodek says.
Planning and development circles talk about a the power of 10: For optimal placemaking (the concept of people coming together in a space), a town should have 10 major destination areas, 10 more destinations within those areas, and 10 things to do in each place.
Wausau’s downtown hosts 80 events annually, more than any other main street community in the state. The next highest on the list has 56.
“I credit the 400 Block for a lot of that,” Brodek says.
The library plaza, in the process of becoming a park, is a good example of that too. The Central Wisconsin Musician’s Guild, the River Valley Jazz Society and Wausau Next came together to set up a stage, and now it’s the catalyst for makeshift concerts, yoga sessions and bike group meetups.
The Unsung Heroes perform at the temporary stage in the library plaza, which could soon officially become a city park.
All of those things have an impact on economic development. “When you’re building a place where people want to be, that’s where businesses want to be,” Brodek says.
The 400 Block’s success sparked faith in other park developments, Duncanson says. Since the final renovations of the 400 Block in 2010, the parks department has seen $33 million worth of capital projects in the city and county parks system.
“We have a very good department and a lot of talented employees,” Duncanson says. “That’s where the rubber meets the road.”
Those recent improvements include the Eastbay Sports Complex, which has hosted a variety of uses. Despite being primarily touted as a soccer complex, it also has hosted the Hmong Sports Festival, and lacrosse and bike polo tournaments, which brings in visitors.
Traditionally known for cross-country skiing, Nine Mile Forest Recreation Area now hosts mountain bike races, the Ragnar Trail Northwoods running series, and numerous cross country meets. Parks officials now say Nine Mile has reached peak event capacity.
All of these examples add to the power of ten concept, making the Wausau area attractive to both business developers and potential workers moving to town.
A wide-ranging career
Duncanson grew up in Wausau, on the southeast side. One of his first jobs as a teenager was working at the Memorial Park pool. During his time as parks director, he renovated the pool twice.
The difference between the two renovations also illustrates some of the ways that parks projects have changed over the years. The first was a simple remodel. In 2016 it became an aquatic center complete with slides, water sprinklers and lounge chairs. The city’s other two pools underwent similar transformations. “Not a lot of swimming goes on there anymore,” Duncanson says with his signature dry, deadpan delivery that hints at an underlying joke.
Duncanson attended UW-Madison, where he earned a degree in landscape architecture. His first job was with the Bureau of Land Management in Riverside, Calif. writing environmental impact statements for energy-related projects during the energy crisis of the 1970s. On the weekends he volunteered to help manage a 40 mile-by-60 mile tract of land called the Imperial Sand Dunes near the Mexican border, monitoring and doing search and rescue for ATVs and dune buggies.
Duncanson recalled spending hours helping a family get their camper unstuck from the desert sands when they pulled too far off the road. As the camper pulled away toward Los Angeles, the family’s three kids gave the finger through the back window to the parks crew. “There’s a love/hate relationship with parks workers,” Duncanson says, laughing about the incident.
After that, Duncanson moved a little closer to home, working for the U.S. Forest Service in the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota. He then moved to the Hiawatha National Forest north of Escanaba, Mich., which included developing the master plan for the forest.
Eyeing his hometown, Duncanson applied for assistant director for Wausau/Marathon County Parks in 1986. He got that job, then was appointed director in 1992.
Then-mayor John Robinson says he wanted to make sure the city/county parks department had a leader who would embrace integration and collaboration between parks and other entities. Without leadership who would embrace that, Wausau was considering separating into its own parks department, Robinson says. Those talks ended when the county appointed Duncanson as parks director.
The Riverfront development is a good example of a private public partnership that embraces work between governing entities, Robinson says. The county provided some environmental impact funds toward its development. “People need to remember that the city is like the heart of the county,” Robinson says. “If it’s not doing well, then you’re going to start to have problems in the rest of your body.”
As the county and city now search for their next parks director, a line in the job description perfectly illustrates the importance of placemaking in the job: “It’s not about living to work or working to live, but about living fully, about enjoying that kind of balance to life that allows you to approach every day with heightened appreciation.”