By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — In a unique city/community partnership, a southeast side park is about to be transformed into a miniature airport, complete with numbered runways, a shelter mimicking an old fashioned hangar, aviation-themed play equipment and much more.
Alexander Airport Park, adjacent to the Wausau Downtown Airport, will undergo a $600,000 renovation this summer, nearly all of which has been funded through donations from individuals and foundations.
“This project would not have happened but for the citizens and city coming together,” said Sarah Werth, a marketing consultant working with project planners.
(Images are conceptual)
In 2015, the southeast side neighborhood group had been brainstorming ways to leave a mark on the neighborhood, and had been pondering simple updates for what was then named Alexander Park.
The group soon discovered the city had budgeted $37,500 to upgrade the park’s aging playground equipment. That’s when the idea of simple upgrades morphed into something much more meaningful: an aviation-themed playground to honor the city’s history of air travel. After consulting with Becher Hoppe Engineers, the group was blown away with the possibilities and began to envision a true jewel for the southeast side.
The park, when finished, will include aviation-themed playground equipment, paved and numbered “runways” that are an exact miniature replica of the runways at Wausau Downtown Airport, information stations that showcase Wausau’s aviation history, aviation education stations and workout equipment for adults. The total project cost is about $600,000. All but the original $37,500 budgeted for park upgrades has been paid for through donations.
Wausau Downtown Airport Manager John Chmiel served on the volunteer committee that came up with the concept. The group met regularly with city leaders, who were eager to help the group transform their vision into reality.
“Obviously, I love airplanes,” Chmiel said. “But I didn’t volunteer as the airport manager. I was part of this as someone who lives in this neighborhood and loves being part of it.”
Chmiel said he hopes the project serves as an example to other neighborhood groups looking for ways to better the community.
“We’re just one district of 11,” Chmiel said. “Just think what could happen if every neighborhood group found one project they could get behind. What we’ve done shows that if a neighborhood group has an idea, it is absolutely possible to make it happen.”
Since the project was announced organizers have held several fundraisers, including a 5K airport run, to help fund the renovation, and other contributions have steadily added to the total.
“It was important to us not to put this on taxpayers,” Chmiel said.
To date, they’ve raised all but about $30,000 of the project costs. The rest they hope to cover through the sales of paving bricks that will be permanent reminders of residents’ pride in their neighborhood park. The project is also being supported through grants from the Walter Alexander Foundation and the Judd S. Alexander Foundation.
The Alexander family has a historical tie to the airport adjacent to the park, which was once named Alexander Airport. In the mid-1920’s, Ben and Judd Alexander built the airport with the understanding that the city would take it over after five years and maintain it, according to the Marathon County Historical Society. The Alexander Airport Park is named in honor of the Alexander family.
“Naming the park Alexander Airport Park is really a fitting tribute to this family’s legacy, one that will carry on for years to come,” Chmiel said.
The first step in the project will happen in mid-June, when the Air National Guard will dismantle and move a vintage Corsair jet that now sits next to the VFW building on River Drive in Wausau. Then, in mid-July, crews will begin the park’s transformation.
Ultimately, project planners intend to invite elementary school groups from throughout the city to tour the park. Volunteer docents will then teach students about aviation and Wausau’s unique history, possibly inspiring future pilots for generations to come.
“This is a lot more than a neighborhood park,” Chmiel said. “This is a community that came together to create something really incredible that will benefit the kids.”
Ways to contribute
Buy a commemorative brick paver; Price is $175 for a 4″x8″ brick with up to three lines of inscription or $500 for an 8″x8″ paver with up to six lines of inscription. Download a paver form here.