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Wausau’s rejection of Hmong tavern proposal sparks “double standard” debate

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By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — City leaders have rejected a proposed zoning change that would have paved the way for a Hmong-owned tavern in Wausau, sparking concerns about a perceived double standard for minority-owned businesses.

The building, at 316 Sherman St., is a former Asian grocery store. The site would require a zoning change to allow for a tavern and live music venue catering to young Hmong professionals. On Jan. 8, True Yang addressed the council to share his vision for the venue, which would use rented space and share a parking lot and entrance with Wausau World Market.

Members of the city’s plan commission on Dec. 18 voted against the proposal by a margin of 1-5, but the city council had the final say. During the December meeting, several concerns were brought forward including those about parking and noise. But Yang on Jan. 8 addressed those concerns, stating that parking would be off-street, soundproofing materials would be added to the space, and that staff would adopt a “zero tolerance” policy for violence and drug activity.

Yang said approving the plan would send a message that the city of Wausau opens its doors to economic prosperity for all residents, including minorities.

At the Jan. 8 meeting, Council Member Mike Martens reminded fellow members that the group supported a zoning change five months earlier at the same location for a proposed VFW Clubhouse and questioned why the council would support one proposal but not the other.

“I totally agree that voting against this resolution would be a double standard,” Martens said.

Dave Nutting, who represents residents in the neighborhood where the tavern was proposed, said he would not support the proposal amid concerns that a patron could leave the bar and drive down Third Avenue drunk.

“Find another location,” Nutting said.

City Council President Lisa Rasmussen said the neighborhood already has too many establishments selling alcohol and adding another tavern could have an overall “negative neighborhood impact.”

But Council Member Mary Thao, who voted in favor of the proposal, said the Yang families have adjusted their plans in response to specific concerns and should be allowed an opportunity for success. Thao also pointed to other tavern plans and licensing in residential areas that have already been approved.

“I want to remind all of you that in the last six months we’ve rezoned and approved the Masonic building, the Urban Bistro that will be at the West Side Battery place – that’s in your district, Mr. Nutting – I wonder how you will feel about that when it comes up again,” Thao said, adding that Hiawatha, a longtime tavern in a residential district, also renewed its liquor license this fall. Urban Street Bistro’s plan includes a micro brewery on site.

“Help me understand how we can approve those three opportunities but not this one,” Thao said. “You are setting the example that we are setting certain votes for certain opportunities.”

Ultimately, council members on Jan. 8 voted against the zoning change by a 5-4 margin.

Pat Peckham, Tom Neal, Mary Thao, and Mike Martens voted in favor of the zoning change with Gary Gisselman, Lisa Rasmussen, Dave Nutting, Dawn Herbst and Dennis Smith opposed. Becky McElhaney and Karen Kellbach were not in attendance.

In her comments during the meeting, Rasmussen stressed that the decision was not a cultural one, but a question of whether another tavern is appropriate in the neighborhood. She said she hopes to discuss with Yang potential alternatives for the business in the near future.

“The city has learned a lot in the last decade or so about making sure land uses are compatible with their surroundings, and these concerns are part of that urban planning because land use decisions are difficult to reverse if a mistake is made and neighbors are impacted,” Rasmussen said. “Much was made in the council meeting as you watch the video about the existence of other neighborhood bars, many of which have been in place for years. While that is true, some of those are the product of old zoning approvals, conditional uses and grandfathered zoning classes also. Others that were offered as examples do not have residential neighbors as close by as 316 Sherman St does, and one is opening primarily as a restaurant.”

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