Dear editor,

Even before the coronavirus impacted our region last spring, communities across the country were hard at work building quality places to live, work and play in order to retain and attract talented people and recruit innovative high-growth companies. Today, amid the pandemic and social unrest taking place in cities, the need for communities to both transform and compete nationally has accelerated.

The level of urgency to effectively compete has been raised in communities due to adaptations being made by business, industry and the communities themselves, like Wausau, to ensure their economic viability and sustained population growth. With the entrenched digital economy, people today have choices where they work and who they work for. Further, companies are making strategic decisions related to location based on the level of innovation and the commitment to vibrancy found in a community, essential to attract and retain the next generation of talent.

As the president and CEO of the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce, I wanted to take a moment to outline a greater potential for our community and to bring clarity to the importance of focusing efforts to revitalize downtown Wausau, in particular the redevelopment of the six city blocks of the Wausau Center mall property.

In my role at the chamber, my team and I work collaboratively with business, industry and community leaders to ensure our community cultivates a strong business environment which supports the growth of small, medium and larger businesses, all of which provide tens of thousands of jobs to the community. In turn, those employment opportunities provide revenues to government to support the diverse public good we enjoy. It is imperative to build a strong and thriving community to support our diverse industry sectors.

A community, like a business, which fails to plan, also plans to fail. Fortunately, well ahead of the pandemic, the chamber along with business, government and community partners, engaged TIP Strategies of Austin, Texas, to develop an economic development strategic plan of action. The Greater Wausau Economic Development Plan was created through community engagement, along with the analysis of robust economic data and expert analysis. The plan emphasizes strategic priorities to create the 21st century community where talented people want to live, work and play. Additionally, the plan calls to create a vibrant place which will attract, retain and support the organic growth of innovative, next generation businesses.

At the heart of the economic development strategic plan is creating and sustaining a community that is forward-looking, not settling for the status quo, nor relying on its past. Wausau must be a community that is committed to creating a thriving downtown environment. This environment is the type which will be sought by both future generations of workforce and by baby boomer retirees in the next phase of their lives.

To that end, I encourage you to take time to reflect on the various developments around the city over the past decades. Many of those achievements and successes were born of strong public-private partnerships between city of Wausau government and an array of community benefactors. Not for profit organizations like the Judd S. Alexander Foundation and the Dwight and Linda Davis Foundation and many, many more have been instrumental in helping to develop the community we enjoy today.

Consider the breadth of giving and the commitment to community enrichment that benevolent organizations like the Judd S. Alexander and Dwight and Linda Davis Foundations have demonstrated. Over time, again and again, they provide monies to people-serving organizations in need of financial support to help the clients they serve – those in need. Consider the financial support these foundations provided over decades to partner with the city of Wausau to create and enhance the 400 Block, to secure condemned properties in partnership with the city of Wausau to develop the riverfront from Scott Street to Bridge Street. Consider their financial support of the arts and entertainment in the art museums and Grand Theater of which we boast nationally. Consider the financial commitments to support small businesses and entrepreneurs. Consider their financial commitment to help foster the development of a modern YMCA. Consider the world-class Whitewater Kayak Course. Wausau is in a unique and enviable position to have these and other amazing foundations supporting this community.

When the Wausau Center mall was set for sale by Rialto Capital, the Judd S. Alexander and Dwight and Linda Davis Foundations sprung to action and established a public private partnership (WOZ, Inc.), along with the city of Wausau, to finally secure local control of the property. The mall is an important strategic economic asset located on six city blocks in the heart of our city. Without that timely action, especially now in the midst of COVID-19, the already failing Wausau Center mall would be held by an outside asset depletion corporation. In other words an outside corporation that would allow the property to wither on the proverbial vine for years. The Wausau Center mall is in rapid decline and its demise has been accelerated by both the pandemic and an ever-changing retail environment shaped by companies like Amazon and the rest of the digital marketplace.

Today, our community has a tremendous public-private partnership opportunity at hand. The Wausau Center mall redevelopment initiative, being led by Wausau Opportunity Zone, Inc., provides a clear vision of possibilities for our future, not a reliance on our past or the status quo. WOZ, Inc. has put forth a bold redevelopment concept which assimilated many planning efforts made by the city of Wausau over the past 10 years. The array of community planning efforts commissioned by the city of Wausau, coupled with the expertise of Epstein Uhen Architects have brought forth a proposed development which will transform a large portion of downtown Wausau into a walkable gathering place for all Wausau residents, particularly for young people, families and retiring baby boomers.

We understand that there are many topics competing for your attention this fall, and it is vitally important to provide information. A web page has been built at https://www.greaterwausau.org/woz/ that includes complete background on the organization, plans, videos and images related to the redevelopment initiative.

For every community, there is a moment in time where opportunity intersects with planning and preparation. Today, our community is at that intersection. The Wausau Center mall property, an icon of the 1980s downtown development, served its purpose for the greater Wausau area in the latter part of the 20th Century. Now, as we work to build a community that will compete in the 21st Century global knowledge economy, the transformation of the mall property from a symbol of our past to a vibrant and refreshing public gathering space is imperative.

The city of Wausau leadership understood the necessity of this strategic transformation and partnered closely with the Judd S. Alexander and Dwight and Linda Davis Foundation to secure the property with WOZ, Inc.  The public-private partnership established between the city and the foundations must move forward to seize an opportunity in time that will serve the citizens of the city.

David Eckmann, president and CEO of Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce; president WOZ, Inc.

Editor’s note: Wausau Pilot & Review gladly publishes commentary from readers, residents and candidates for local offices. The views of readers and columnists are independent of this newspaper and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wausau Pilot & Review. To submit, email editor@wausaupilotandreview.com or mail to 500 N. Third St., Suite 208-8, Wausau, Wis. 54403.