By Shereen Siewert

The Wausau City Council on Wednesday approved a proposal for a group of local foundations to purchase the Wausau Center mall, a proposal that required more than $1.6 million in taxpayer-funded incentives.

Wausau Opportunity Zone, LLC, will now move forward with the plan, which includes a $1 million forgivable loan and transfer of city-owned assets to the LLC for $1. Those assets include the former Sears building, which the city purchased in 2017 for roughly $650,000, but not the HOM Furniture property. The proposal passed by a vote of 8-1.

The purchase is expected to be finalized in November, after which the buyer will retain a panel that includes area stakeholders to form a redevelopment plan for the struggling downtown mall, which at one time was a vibrant marketplace and the center of downtown activity.

The pending sale of the mall comes more than three years after city leaders approved a $4.1 million plan to help former owner CBL with physical improvements for the mall. Part of CBL’s plan, which never materialized, involved moving what was then Younkers to the space once occupied by J.C. Penney. At the time, CBL representatives said moving Younkers was critical to keeping the anchor store open.

The move never happened, and Younkers ultimately closed in 2018 after parent company Bon-Ton went out of business, and CBL walked away from the mall property, which was sold in July 2017 for $12.8 million to Miami-based Rialto in a sheriff’s sale.

The $4.1 million was subsequently used in other ways. In February 2018, Wausau Finance Director Maryanne Groat told Wausau Pilot and Review the $4.1 million loan taken out by the city and earmarked for the mall had since been “repurposed.” The city used $650,000 to acquire the former Sears property and dedicated $750,000 to extend Fulton Street as part of the riverfront project. The remaining $2,740,000 was redirected to the city’s Riverlife project, Groat said. But since that time, the Fulton Street project price tag dropped after the city received grant funding and the project size decreased, freeing up some of those funds.

When Wausau Center opened in 1983, the mall, then owned by the Jacobs Group, was a bustling 424,000 square-foot regional center with three anchor tenants: J.C. Penney, Sears, and Prange’s, which evolved into Younkers. Now at about 50 percent capacity, the mall will be sold  at what many supporters say is a bargain basement price. WOZ successfully bid on the property and will pay about $3 million for the mall, $1 million of which is the city’s contribution to the purchase.

The proposal calls for the city to remain co-owner and remain involved as a partner in management of the property for an indefinite amount of time.