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

By Shereen Siewert

Members of the Wausau City Council declined Tuesday to discuss the city’s decision to apply for millions in grant funding that includes $11.7 million for redevelopment of the former Wausau Center mall.

Grants that do not involve a city-funded match do not require council approval but can be submitted without any council oversight, officials said. But after public outcry stemming from the news that $10.5 million of the money would be used to pay for a pedestrian bridge proposed as part of the former mall redevelopment, Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian asked that the matter be agendized for discussion. Kilian represents the district in which the property lies.

The mall property was acquired in February 2020 by Wausau Opportunity Zone, Inc., and was funded by a pair of local foundations in partnership with the city of Wausau. The city has already committed more than $6 million to the project in taxpayer-based incentives and has plans to create a new Tax Increment District to support the project. Wausau has reached the limit on TIF valuation, so an exception would be necessary to create a new TIF district.

In addition to the $10.5 million earmarked to construct a pedestrian bridge connecting the former mall space with the south riverfront area, another $1.2 million would be used for infrastructure improvements related to the overall project, said Wausau Economic Development Director Liz Brodek.

Funds would come from the Neighborhood Investment Fund grant program, announced by Gov. Tony Evers in August, which aims to help communities deliver innovative public services, including new or improved facilities. Wausau can apply for up to $15 million in grant funding, money that targets housing, child care, transit solutions and increased access to healthcare in specific Census tracts impacted by the pandemic.

In addition to the mall redevelopment, the city will also apply for $1.5 million to assist Community Partners Campus in the construction of their planned shared-space facility for nonprofits serving disadvantaged families and individuals. Another $1.7 million would provide gap financing to Gorman & Co. if their proposal to build a 50-unit low-income housing complex on the site of the former West Side Battery is approved, Brodek said. The Gorman proposal is one of two considered for the space; the other, proposed by WOZ, calls for the city to transfer the property to the group so the existing building can be razed, leaving the view to downtown unmarred.

The grant application announcement drew a mixed reaction from the public and from members of the Economic Development Committee last week. During Tuesday’s Finance Committee meeting, Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen said there was “miscommunication” about the grants and said the bridge proposal “sucked the air out of the room” before information about additional funding could be discussed.

Brodek said the bridge was one of the projects chosen because it is already in “queue,” an assertion City Council President Becky McElhaney balked at.

McElhaney said many residents are now accusing the council of “back door dealing” and pushing projects forward without transparency or public participation. The city took a first look at renderings for the massive downtown project in 2020, when council members approved an additional $4.7 million in taxpayer-funded incentives to support the program.

“How is it that this project is already in queue,” McElhaney said. “And were we already going to be paying for it all?”

Brodek responded by saying that the city generally funds infrastructure projects.

Though the Finance Committee held a spirited discussion on the issue Tuesday, the full council, which met immediately afterward, voted 7-4 not to discuss the grant applications at all.

McElhaney and Kilian are both now calling for greater oversight and transparency when managing such projects in the future.

“There is no reason for us to discuss public policy in darkness,” Kilian said.

Mayor Katie Rosenberg acknowledged that the process could be improved. “Obviously, we can do better,” Rosenberg said.

Mayor Katie Rosenberg speaks during a Nov. 9, 2021 meeting at City Hall.

McElhaney said she heard from many residents who are angry about the way in which the grant funds would be used – as well as their perceived lack of public participation in the process.

“Our projects succeed if people are behind us,” McElhaney said. “We don’t have that.”

But Rasmussen said there was no real action for the council to take before submitting applications for the grants, which are allocated in a competitive process.

“Our oversight role is not at the point of application,” Rasmussen said. “When grants are awarded, we vote whether to accept, to say thank you or no thank you. That’s what we’ve historically done.”

The funds are derived from the American Rescue Plan Act to help communities build long-term, sustainable economic success. The deadline to apply is Nov. 11 and all funds must be used by the end of 2024.