By Shereen Siewert

Wausau will apply for a $10.5 million grant intended for housing, child care, transit solutions and increased access to healthcare to fund a pedestrian bridge envisioned by Wausau Opportunity Zone as part of the mall redevelopment project, city officials said.

The Neighborhood Investment Fund grant program, announced by Gov. Tony Evers in August, aims to help communities deliver innovative public services, including new or improved facilities.

“Governments could pursue new projects like workforce and entrepreneur innovation centers, affordable housing initiatives, transit and childcare solutions, or public space development, with a particular emphasis on increasing services for underserved individuals and populations,” according to an Aug. 24 news release issued by the Evers administration.

Wausau Economic Development Director Liz Brodek said the city will use the majority of their $15 million potential grant to fund the bridge. Brodek said the project fits the criteria because the fund was created to help neighborhoods recover from the pandemic and the pandemic “caused the mall to close at a pace no one expected.”

The funds are derived from the American Rescue Plan Act to help communities build long-term, sustainable economic success.

The announcement drew a mixed reaction during Tuesday’s Economic Development Committee, whose members first learned of the plan this week. The deadline to apply is Nov. 11 and all funds must be used by the end of 2024.

“So you said these funds could be applied to things like child care and housing, and we’re applying them to a curvy little pedestrian walkway?” said Dist. 3 Alderman Tom Kilian, who represents the district that includes the mall redevelopment project. “That is in my district and I can tell you why it would be an opportunity zone and it’s because there is so much poverty in that census tract…in terms of an opportunity zone, an opportunity for whom?”

Wausau Opportunity Zone, or WOZ, bought the mall in February 2020 with funding from 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 city’s participation, according to city documents, included a $1 million forgivable loan and transfer of city-owned assets to the LLC for $1. Those assets included the former Sears building, which the city purchased in 2017 for roughly $650,000. The mall has since been torn down.

“When we’re using those monies for these things instead of dire needs like child care I think in the future you’d want to revisit those decisions,” Kilian said.

Brodek defended the decision by saying that while child care is one of her personal passions, this project presented an opportunity to move quickly. The scoring system for the grant also relies in part on a project being “shovel ready,” Brodek said.

“As much as I would love to….I unfortunately didn’t have anything ready to go, to put a multi-million dollar project together in a month,” she said.

Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen said that the bridge will allow the public to better utilize public open spaces, a desire that became more prevalent during the pandemic.