By Shereen Siewert
Prompted by concerns from various council members and the public, Wausau’s application for Neighborhood Investment Fund Program COVID-relief monies is now on the agenda for Tuesday’s City Council Meeting.
Typically, council members do not approve or deny such funding applications, but the announcement last week that Wausau will apply for a $10.5 million grant to fund a pedestrian bridge envisioned by Wausau Opportunity Zone as part of the mall redevelopment project was met by no shortage of criticism in the community. 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. The fund is largely intended for housing, child care, transit solutions and increased access to healthcare in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, though “improved outdoor spaces” also fits the criteria.
Wausau can apply for up to $15 million under the program, with a deadline of Nov. 11. The funds are derived from the American Rescue Plan Act to provide “grants to local and Tribal governments for making significant investments with long-term benefits in order to help neighborhoods recover from negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the Department of Administration.
Last week, 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.”
But Brodek’s statement that the pace of the mall’s closing was impacted by COVID and, therefore, unknown or unanticipated, appears to be directly contradicted by emails between WOZ and city officials obtained through an open records request.
According to internal WOZ board records, the group was already planning on demolishing the mall in June 2020, just a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Those emails indicate demolition was planned for 2021. Interactions from April 2020 also include a discussion on “diagrams that have been started,” plans that appeared to also center on mall demolition.
Though some community members are outraged by the decision, some city staff members are on board. Wausau Public Works Director Eric Lindman, in an email to select council members obtained by Wausau Pilot & Review, said his department did not have projects that would qualify. Most planned street reconstruction projects do not have a significant impact on development, Lindman wrote, which is a major criteria of the grant.
“Based on the criteria of the grant which was discussed at [Economic Development] the mall project meets every criteria and has the best opportunity for funding,” Lindman said.
Dist. 3 Alderman Tom Kilian, who represents the district in which the former mall is located, was openly skeptical of the decision to earmark funds for the bridge.
“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,” said Kilian, who has since written to the Dept. of Administration to communicate his concerns.
“The City’s desire to use these funds on the WOZ bridge while people lose their homes and jobs from COVID-related economic impacts has triggered widespread community outrage and disgust,” Kilian said.
The Wausau City Council in October 2019 approved a proposal by WOZ to purchase the Wausau Center with $1.6 million in taxpayer-funded incentives that 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.
Then in November 2020, the Wausau City Council approved a proposal to spend an additional $4.7 million to help fund demolition and redevelopment of the mall space.
According to Lindman’s email, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation is aware of the project and has reached out to the city, recommending the project be submitted.
But Kilian sad that alone raises red flags.
“I find WEDC’s influence and interference in this matter to be inappropriate and regrettable,” Kilian said. “Circumventing District 3 representation while diverting relief funds from dire needs to decadent electives is adding to a perception here that this well-intentioned grant program is being reduced to a sham.”
The Finance Committee will discuss the matter at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday and the City Council meets at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau.
Wausau Pilot & Review will follow the meeting and report on the outcome.