By Shereen Siewert

A Wausau City Council member is asking officials to make public the amount of private and public investment made to date in redevelopment efforts for the former downtown mall site, while questions about potential parking ramp ownership emerged on Tuesday.

Wausau Economic Development Director Liz Brodek said she did not have the financials ready but is working to compile them.

On Tuesday, a discussion by the council on land being conveyed to the city for road and utility development veered into a previously approved agreement that appears to allow Wausau Opportunity Zone, Inc. the right to purchase an existing parking ramp structure from the city for $1. Dist. 10 Alder Lou Larson questioned the provision and said his constituents are tired of seeing property given away at far less than fair market value.

The agreement, which names both WOZ and the former Wausau Area Chamber Foundation now named Greater Wausau Prosperity Partnership, Ltd., was approved in October 2019 and amended in January 2021.

Unclear is when the provision for WOZ to purchase the former Sears parking ramp was reintegrated into the development agreement. According to an October 2020 memo from Groat to the Finance Committee, the negotiated terms called for WOZ to “surrender the option for possession of the Sears Parking Ramp.”

Source: City of Wausau packet

Neither Groat nor Brodek responded to Wausau Pilot & Review for clarification by press time.

Larson proposed an amendment that would have required WOZ to purchase the ramp for fair market value, should they intend to do so. Wausau Finance Director MaryAnne Groat justified the $1 price tag by suggesting that the parking ramp has little practical value. Groat said demolishing the ramp would cost at least $2 million, should the city decide it no longer wishes to control its operation.

Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian disagreed with Groat’s characterization and said market value does not hinge on how expensive it is to demolish a structure.

“The local mapping system shows that this parcel is 2.05 acres in the middle of downtown, so I am certain it commands more than $1 of market value,” Kilian said.

But if the provision for WOZ to purchase the ramp still exists and Larson and Kilian want to revisit the issue, they will need to do so before the Economic Development Committee. The ramp purchase was not an agendized item for Tuesday’s Council meeting. Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen said the Council cannot arbitrarily change terms of an agreement and doing so “on the fly” would be a “bad look” for the city.

Joe Mella, speaking Tuesday on behalf of WOZ, told the council the provision is a “fail safe” because of what the group is hoping to see redeveloped there. Mella said the group would likely buy the ramp to run it, not tear it down.

The Wausau City Council in October 2019 approved a WOZ proposal to purchase the mall 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. But public participation has increased significantly since the mall purchase and sat at roughly $6.3 million by the end of 2020.

Brodek said she would have numbers detailing city participation to date on the project compiled before the next Economic Development Committee meeting for review.