By Dino Corvino
As we enter the summer of 2018, the shine appears to be coming off the current administration in Wausau. There is a list of many unfinished or troubled projects, lots of talk about a developer here or there, and a sense that none of this contains a strategic road map to get us through this troubled time.
We must allow for some challenges that Mayor Mielke has had to deal with. First, he inherited a city staff that seemed to be in a state of constant conflict and infighting. It had a sort of Lord of the Flies vibe going on and, in his defense, he seems to put much of the dysfunction behind. He also has had to deal with state aids and a property tax base that are not growing sufficiently to cover ordinary increases in expenses.
But, one must acknowledge that the shine has come of the Economic Development penny here in Wausau. In doing so, we must acknowledge that this state of chaos will bleed out into surrounding communities, and affect the entirety of Marathon County. That is because as the largest municipality, Wausau has long been the economic engine for the County.
Rhetorically speaking I think that one could ask, what projects HAVE BEEN COMPLETED or are not in a state of ongoing turmoil? Let us pose some specific things, shall we?
- Thomas Street
- Liberty Mutual
- The Mall
- The Movie Theatre
- The Riverlife Project
- Misdirection of Mall Grant funds to Riverlife Road Monies
- Lower Bond Rating
- Growing Long Term Debt
- The WEDC Grant (seems like it is not a big story, but I think it is a HUGE story)
- Continued Pseudo Transparency
We must acknowledge problems in the city’s Economic Development strategy at this point. The Economic Development committee made a significant change to the information required to be gathered prior to approval of any project. This change is important for a few reasons, but one is an acknowledgement that sufficient background information was not being collected in a way that was needed to make good decisions. In addition, it forces us to see that the Planning, Community and Economic Director did not think this information was either needed or important — and one can make an assumption about the reason why.
In that assumption, we can clearly deduce that ego has become a problem. The Mayor, Economic Development Committee Chair Tom Neal, and Economic Development Director Chris Schock have NOT appeared in the media to articulate a vision through these projects. Instead, we see Shock get dismissive with council members for asking questions that he feels are unimportant or somehow don’t need to be asked. This is spite of all indications being that the status of these projects falls somewhere between severely challenged and failing. These failures will have a long-term impact on the City of Wausau and the larger community around it in Marathon County since all share the partnership of Tax Increment Financing. It is hubris, at best, and malfeasance, at worst.
The Riverlife Project is clearly a case of ego running amok at City Hall. How many different information dumps have occurred that have shown that this developer is snake bit? Clearly, this process was flawed from the beginning. It is equally clear that the City staff has dug in their heels and become defensive or dismissive when any constructive or not so constructive criticism is offered.
I have posted over and over for years that if the city would simply communicate more to the public about the strategic direction it is going, then it would be able to justify some of the tactical decisions it is making. I had always believed that if we knew where the caravan was going, we would be able to support this choice or that choice. But I have come to think that some things are structurally broken, and that significant changes need to be made.
These changes need to be made to stop an ongoing perception issue; one there are no consequences, there is no plan, there is no transparency and there no real leadership from the Mayor or the City Council. In the case of the issues outlined here, we have seen only the smallest comments from the Mayor, the ED Chair Tom Neal and Finance Chair Lisa Rasmussen, along with staff. The lack of communication here, or on their own Facebook pages, or the City social media platforms, allows a narrative to be constructed in the place of actual facts. Without communication from these important leaders, we are left to make up our own minds. Clearly Neal, Mielke, Rasmussen and Schock should make themselves more available to the media to explain where we are and where we are going. Since they ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR IT.
The good news is, every new council brings new possibilities. We have new members like Mary Thao, Dawn Herbst, and Mike Martens, and we can only hope that these new voices will bring positive change, real transparency, lack of ego and defensiveness, and real communication with the public through both traditional media channels, and their own social media platforms. But, until that happens, I think the City of Wausau needs to take some active steps to hold individuals accountable, to make the leadership more available to the public to understand choices to begin to stop the growing narrative that this administrations leadership has led to our current chaotic state.
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