By Shereen Siewert

The financially troubled Wausau Center mall is now under new ownership after Wausau Opportunity Zone, Inc., finalized the purchase of the property from Rialto Capital Management on Tuesday, according to a news release.

The acquisition does not include HOM Furniture or the two parking ramps connected with the mall, in downtown Wausau.

The purchase was funded by a pair of local foundations, the Dwight and Linda Davis Foundation and the Judd S. Alexander Foundation, in partnership with the city of Wausau.

The Wausau City Council in October approved the group’s proposal to purchase the Wausau Center mall, a plan that included $1.6 million in taxpayer-funded incentives. The city’s participation, according to city documents, 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.

The Wausau Area Chamber Foundation role is to facilitate a private-public partnership whereby the community will benefit by securing and repositioning key real estate in downtown Wausau, the release states.

WOZ Inc. President Dave Eckmann called the transaction critical to Wausau’s economic future.

“By securing local ownership of the mall property, community stakeholders have the ability to shape and own the adaptive use of a vitally important piece of real estate in central Wisconsin,” Eckmann said, in a prepared statement.

Under WOZ ownership and management by Mid-America Real Estate, the Wausau Center Mall will continue normal operations, serving current tenants. In the near future, WOZ, in collaboration with community stakeholders, would seek to develop a comprehensive plan to reposition the mall property.

WOZ has engaged Chuck Ghidorzi to act as Managing Director, leading the planning process for redevelopment of the property.

The sale of the mall comes nearly four 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.

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 was expected to pay about $3 million for the mall, $1 million of which is the city’s contribution to the purchase.