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By Tom Kilian, Dist. 3 Wausau City Council representative
It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that I have been on the opposite side of the entrenched Good Ol’ Boys culture and crew in Wausau for about 15 years now. Thomas Street and the neighborhood in which I live have become emblems of the good fight that continues, persistently challenging the government’s and private sector’s poor decisions. But, even with the fresh faces of council and staff in recent times, there has apparently not been enough systemic change on Grant Street to deter reruns of City Hall’s debacles, and we are seeing that of late.
I have made it a priority to have robust public participation processes when it comes to government policy decisions for District 3, along with District 10 and its alderperson, Lou Larson. So how is that currently working out for these districts, and Alder Larson and myself?
Citizens on the southwest side participated in impressively high numbers and almost uniformly expressed their rejection to 3M Company’s and Kolbe’s expansion proposals at 1300 Cleveland Avenue right in the middle of a largely residential neighborhood. For background, 3M Company has significant documented historical pollution of the air, soil, and groundwater on Wausau’s southwest side and people who live there have had enough with the industrial contamination and corporate policy bullying. In modern times, what is tantamount to “spot zoning” is completely inappropriate. Industry belongs in our industrial park, not adjacent to a residential backyard produce garden. There is no municipal price tag – let me repeat that – there is no municipal price tag – that we can put on the protection of our local neighborhoods, and the protection of the individuals and families who reside in them.
People on the southwest side and community at large simply want to have a meaningful impact on guiding what the city-owned land is ultimately used for, as should be their right in a legitimate democracy. And the land and contamination at 1300 Cleveland Avenue, which resides in the middle of a largely residential area, should – without question or dispute – be cleaned up to the DNR’s non-industrial standards. If alternatives to doing so are pursued by the City of Wausau, let that be a major red flag to all citizens who are monitoring the situation, and be prepared to make your voices and opposition heard, and loudly.
Because, unfortunately, certain factions at City Hall are acting as though Thomas Street and Riverside Park never occurred. The phrase “Sorry, we were repeatedly wrong over many years, and we will correct our behavior now” does not appear to exist from some of the local political class or those who serve it. The people in town essentially forced the City to test Riverside Park and the former Connor Forest Industries property (although there were select alderpersons who cared about and supported testing for years), but it seemingly cannot force the City of Wausau to have an institutional memory or to recognize and correct its profound environmental and civic mistakes.
If officials are looking out for the best interests of regular folks, why would city representatives not simply and decisively put an end to industrial expansion proposals on the southwest side, instead of continuing to play development policy footsie with serial polluters and operations that are inconsistent with a residential area? They are not doing so, which is an additional red flag. It is time to shut these proposals down.
When alderpersons correctly acted on the expressed will and desire of residents to have the City’s zoning map error corrected for 1300 Cleveland Avenue so that it was properly zoned back to residential instead of industrial, it apparently sparked the disapproval and indignation of $32-billion-per-year-in-revenue 3M Company. So much so, that a state assemblyman with multiple past 3M Company campaign contributions came before the city council last week to push and peddle 3M’s Cleveland Avenue expansion proposal, despite his own constituents’ overwhelming rejection of the proposal. And, make no mistake, 3M’s handed out plenty of campaign contributions, whether those accepting were elephants, donkeys or elephonkeys. We need to get corporate money out of our elections and democracy – period, full stop – before things get worse and more corporate-contribution-laden Madison and D.C. politicians come to tell Wausonians “how it is,” whether blue or red.
It has frustrated and embarrassed the Good Ol’ Boys network that working and middle-class neighborhoods in Wausau, particularly in District 3 and District 10, are finally and effectively standing up against development plans that benefit only a select few. But, obviously, our neighborhoods are not out of “colony” and “monopoly board” status yet. We must not simply vote out politicians that betray their own people. We must actively address and erode this culture of oligarchy that has defined Wausau’s policy landscape since its inception. It is time to say goodbye to the local elitism, big money, and old money that all of us know and dislike so well, and it is time that the people assert itself, and that representatives represent again. Welcome home to Wausau.