A rendering of a proposed development on the site of the current Wausau Center Mall. Image: City of Wausau

By Shereen Siewert

The Wausau City Council on Tuesday approved a proposal to spend $4.7 million to help fund demolition and redevelopment of the Wausau Center mall.

Wausau Opportunity Zone, Inc. on Feb. 4 finalized the purchase of the financially troubled Wausau Center mall from Rialto Capital Management. The purchase was funded by a pair of local foundations, the Dwight and Linda Davis Foundation and the Judd S. Alexander Foundation, along with with taxpayer-funded incentives that initially included 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, and the land and air rights to the property.

Under new terms negotiated by Mayor Katie Rosenberg the city’s loan amount decreased to $660,000 and is no longer forgivable but is interest free with repayments beginning in 2022.

The acquisition does not include HOM Furniture. WOZ has, under the new terms, agreed to give up the existing option to purchase for $1 the Sears parking ramp, which is owned by the city. Perhaps the most significant change to the development agreement is the caveat that WOZ will pay guaranteed real estate taxes based on an assessed value of $7 million beginning Jan. 1, 2024, regardless of construction. The developer expects the value of improvements to range from $18 to $21 million.

Public comment at the start of Tuesday’s meeting was largely in favor of the development.

Members of the city council spent more than 90 minutes in closed session discussing the project before emerging for a public discussion and vote. The proposal passed by a vote of 9-3 with Tom Kilian, Debra Ryan and Lou Larson voting against.

Before the vote Kilian, who represents Dist. 3 – the district in which the mall is located – called for greater participation and transparency in future development agreements. Kilian has publicly questioned whether the original agreement violated state law because the term sheet contained language related to property tax reimbursement. Property tax reimbursement is prohibited in Wisconsin due to the state’s uniformity clause.

“If we’re looking to take positive steps forward then I hope this opens a dialogue over what’s happened historically with property tax reimbursements, and I hope we can look at that and perhaps improve upon it,” Kilian said.

Lisa Rasmussen, who represents Dist. 7, praised the mayor’s work on renegotiating a plan that ensures a return on investment while reducing public participation.

Funding for the mall project is included in the 2021 budget, which also passed Tuesday by an 8-3 vote.

Visit GreaterWausau.org/WOZ to learn more about the project, including background on the WOZ organization, plans, and videos and images related to the redevelopment initiative.

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