WAUSAU — City leaders remain divided over a $16 million plan to relocate two riverfront businesses to Wausau’s Business Campus, three weeks after the twin projects were approved by the city council.

Under the plan, Great Lakes Cheese and Wausau Chemical will each receive millions in incentives to move their facilities and transfer their current properties to the city for $1. In public meetings, Council President Lisa Rasmussen praised the two projects as opening up new doors for the city with new possibilities for land use along Wausau’s coveted riverfront.

Dennis Smith, who represents Wausau’s District #11, said he voted against the two plans amid concerns over the city’s burgeoning debt. Smith said he is greatly concerned that the city has taken on $13 million in debt in the last few weeks, with more than $16 million waiting in the wings. That will bring the debt to more than $94 million, or about $6,000 per household in Wausau.

Mielke has called the two projects an important part of the city’s future, crucial to economic development.

But Smith said the debt, much of which is being made possible through Tax Increment Financing, could put the city in a precarious position because paying back the money can take decades.

Adding to the concern, Smith said, is the uncertainty regarding potential contamination beneath the soil at the Wausau Chemical property.

“We’re giving Wausau Chemical almost $8 million so they can build a $10 million facility, and in the meantime we don’t know what we’re getting in return,” Smith said.

Wausau Chemical was identified in 1988 by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site because of the land’s contamination by hazardous waste that poses an identifiable risk to human health or the environment.

In a radio interview July 26, Mayor Rob Mielke said the city is “discussing” a hold harmless clause that would require Wausau Chemical to pay for environmental cleanup above and beyond the $217,300 estimate received in July by engineering consultants at GHD in St. Paul, Minn. The estimate includes working with the Department of Natural Resources to remediate the site and allow for removal of a 2007 deed restriction, placed on the site by the EPA.

But the term sheet for the relocation projects, drafted May 31 and approved July 18 by the city council, shows no hold harmless clause and instead states that the city will be responsible for all costs related to environmental auditing or remediation. (See document embedded below.)

“I think the jury is still out on how much remediation it’s going to take to make the Wausau Chemical property safe,” Smith said.

Smith also expressed concern that the $217,300 estimated cleanup cost for the property was only an estimate, based on soil samples from two years ago. The estimate is subject to change “depending on the actual scope of the investigation and the selected remedial option approved by the DNR,” according to the proposal.

“Basically, they have an out,” Smith said. “And all this is for a property that we don’t really have a plan for, except that maybe we’ll be giving it to a developer someday. That’s the plan.”

Great Lakes Cheese broke ground last week on their new facility, which will be completed in 2018. Wausau Chemical’s facility is expected to complete construction in 2019, according to city documents.

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