The mall is a wall

(First published in the September 27, 2018 issue of City Pages)

And it divides downtown. That’s the consensus so far as a consultant holds meetings to brainstorm a redesign around Wausau Center mall


Wausau Center mall manager Kirk Kamke listens during a brainstorming session Monday that included Mayor Robert Mielke (left).

About a dozen people, a mix of residents and public officials, brainstormed ideas of what the area around the ailing Wausau Center mall could look like. But what will happen with the mall itself is still a mystery.

Toole Design Group, based out of Maryland, conducted the workshop as part of the city’s multi-step process to re-envision the street grid around the mall — namely Forest Street south of the mall, and Washington Street in front of the north entrance.

The two corridors couldn’t be more different, says Toole Design Landscape Architect John Dempsey. While the north side, which faces Third Street, has local shopping, restaurants, entertainment spots, and streets that accommodate parking, bicycles and pedestrians, the Forest Street corridor is a busy three-lane road with several empty businesses. One empty building on Forest Street, Mayor Robert Mielke says, hasn’t been used since it was a campaign office for presidential hopeful John Kerry in 2004. Travelers from the west going to Grand Avenue drive by without ever really seeing downtown, Dempsey says.

Suggestions included more outdoor seating areas, converting Washington Street to two-way traffic, and giving the mall a more outdoor plaza feel. Toole Design will take the suggestions and come back in October with a suggested plan.

But as one participant pointed out, don’t any plans require knowing exactly what is going to happen with Wausau Center itself?

That remains a mystery, as mall owner Rialto has kept its future plans for the mall under wraps. Mielke told City Pages that Rialto came to the city with a plan and asked “way too much” public aid to make it happen. The mayor wouldn’t specify how much Rialto asked for, and didn’t elaborate on those plans. A WEDC-funded consultant—separate from the Toole Design process—is supposed to bring its next set of ideas for the mall in October; but those won’t mean much without Rialto’s participation.

One thing everyone agreed on: The mall as it stands acts like a wall from downtown to the south. And until Rialto unveils its plans, that’s not likely to change any time soon.