By Shereen Siewert | Wausau Pilot & Review
Members of the city’s Economic Development Committee are set to enter a closed session discussion Tuesday on a multi-million dollar downtown redevelopment, but have so far kept financial details of the project from the public.
‘The Foundry on 3rd’ will encompass the land between Washington and Jefferson Streets at Third Street where the Wausau Center Mall once stood. The five-story building will include retail and commercial space, co-working space, an interior courtyard green space and 154 urban apartments ranging from micro-units to three-bedroom units, according to JLA Architects. Wausau Opportunity Zone, Inc. and T. Wall Enterprises released design plans and artist renderings in late May for the project.
But what is yet unclear is how much of the $44 million price tag will be borne by the public. Dave Eckmann, president of Wausau Opportunity Zone, Inc., deferred repeated questions about the public’s investment in the project after releasing a statement that boasted a $44 million “investment” in the project, but did not detail how much would actually be privately funded.
“Does that mean that the group will be investing $44 million plus TIF funds to be negotiated between the city and T. Wall, or is that a total amount that includes the TIF negotiation to be determined?” Wausau Pilot & Review asked, in an email. “I just want to be clear.”
“The new development plan is between T. Wall and city,” responded Eckmann, who is also president and CEO of the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce. “Whatever is developed for an agreement is between this two parties, not WOZ. Liz Brodek would be your best contact.”
In May, Wausau Development Director Liz Brodek released two different sets of numbers to clarify public and private participation in the project, after Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian asked for an accounting of money spent. In the most recent set of numbers, part of the Wausau City Council’s May 24 meeting packet, Brodek lists WOZ participation as between $20-40 million for one of the blocks under development, but did not clarify how much of that will be paid by citizens of the city. And while city leaders appear poised to vote on the project Tuesday, not a single detail about the potential cost to taxpayers has been shared with the public.
Brodek, in an email to Wausau Pilot & Review, said she expects “with near certainty there will be a [Tax Increment Financing] request” moving forward.“The amount will be negotiated,” she said. But even a ballpark range has not been publicly disclosed.
Projected taxpayer-funded incentives already topped the $5 million mark, while members of the Council continue to disagree on how much is too much to spend on the downtown redevelopment.
Kilian and Dist. 10 Alder Lou Larson have repeatedly called for more transparency on such deals to allow for more public participation and on spending decisions.
But Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen, in May, defended the project and said Wausau must continue to make forward-looking decisions. She also accused people, “some elected and some not,” of actively working to cause projects like the mall plan to fail “under the guise that they are looking out for taxpayers.”
“We compete with other communities for developers and projects and we need to be at the forefront of securing viable projects that will increase the number of people living and working downtown if we want to have a successful local economy,” Rasmussen said. “The city and the council knew from day one that the goal was to consider projects block by block to re invigorate the former mall area and that there would likely be public/private partnerships needed on parts of it, just like the mall had. The mall succeeded because decision makers had vision and courage and their decisions paid dividends for Wausau for decades.”
Wausau Pilot & Review in June submitted an open records request for emails between Brodek and members of the development team to shed light on the project and its ongoing negotiating process, but no such records have yet been produced.