By Shereen Siewert

The Greater Wausau Prosperity Partnership has launched an ad campaign to push residents toward supporting a controversial $44 million downtown redevelopment project, one that will likely rely on millions in taxpayer-based incentives.

But some city leaders say they’re deeply concerned about the lack of public-facing information that has been released prior to the push for community support.

“I frankly find the non-transparent nature of this project troubling,” City Council President Becky McElhaney told Wausau Pilot & Review. “It has not followed the normal trajectory of development projects over my time on council. The council was not given the opportunity to see the initial proposal, nor an opportunity to vote  directing staff to negotiate the development agreement. “

In a news release the group said they are featuring “local voices” while highlighting “the benefits of the Wausau Center mall revitalization project,” and “encouraging next steps to move forward.”

But McElhaney said she has not received any further information regarding the requested amount of public participation, the financial projections or solid details of the final projected project value when completed – despite the push for public support. The ad, seen here, is airing on local TV and radio stations.

Some city leaders and residents have repeatedly pushed back against the project, citing concerns over taxpayer affordability for a project that will result in significant tax breaks for the current owners. The project is located in an Opportunity Zone, which offers tax incentives to encourage those with capital gains to invest in low-income and undercapitalized communities. Some of the criticism comes from the lack of public information about the project and its cost to taxpayers. Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian and Lou Larson, of Dist. 10, have been vocal critics of the project’s costs as the city’s debt continues to climb.

Dist. 4 Alder Doug Diny said his vote on the matter “will be based primarily on my analysis of forthcoming details with an eye for positive growth and value for the city.”

But to date, few details have been forthcoming. Dave Eckmann, who is chairman and CEO of the Greater Wausau Prosperity Partnership and the Chamber, referred questions about the negotiations to the city and said his organization is not included in those discussions.

“We are now in the phase of the project where negotiations about financing for the project are happening between the city and the developer and do not include the Wausau Opportunity Zone and Greater Wausau Prosperity Partnership,” Eckmann told Wausau Pilot & Review.

Wausau Development Director Liz Brodek said the city is “still negotiating” the public ask for the roughly $44 million project, but will bring the development agreement with the Tax increment Financing request and application, along with a memo from the consultant working on the gap analysis, to a joint meeting of the Economic Development and Finance Committees on Sept. 13. The packet containing the information “should be out the Friday before,” Brodek said.

T. Wall Enterprises, the developer Wausau Opportunity Zone selected for the former Wausau Center mall redevelopment site, envisions a five-story building along a portion of Washington Street that includes 154 apartments with mixed-use commercial space on the ground floor.

As reported earlier by Wausau Pilot & Review, the taxpayer-funded assistance application for the development makes significant claims about the potential impact of the project, but lacked key details including a financial needs analysis, project summary, cash flow projections and other documentation required by the city. Cash flow projections were later added for the first year of operation, but there are no details for future years, which the application requests.

In a July 12 memo to City Council members, Brodek wrote that the TIF application aims to help the city determine the “necessary amount of public participation for the project to go forward.” But the document itself does not spell out those details, nor does it explain how the project would bring $10 million “in disposable incomes to support the local economy,” as the developers promise. The application does not promise any local job creation.

When applicants seek city participation for a project, they must include financial analyses to demonstrate the need for TIF assistance. Applicants are required to submit two analysis – one with and one without TIF assistance, indicating the minimum return necessary to proceed with the project. But no such document has been made public to date.

Numbers specified in the document list an array of figures that do not add up to WOZ’s claim of a $44 million investment in the project in any obvious way, nor do they include the required percentage of total use of funding. The application shows building construction and renovation at $36,695,000 and “contingency” funds of $2,210,000. Under funding sources, T. Wall lists $33,308,000 as a “construction financing” loan, $8,05,900 in “developer equity,” while “other TIF assistance” is listed as a “TIF Loan” earmarked at $0. A separate entry shows a construction loan of $33,308,263 with an additional “TIF Loan” of $6,216,000.

City documents show a second phase is already planned for a “Wausau Opportunity Zone Condominium” located on a separate area of the former mall’s footprint. Brodek said no formal ask has been made for taxpayer-backed financing for the condos, the plans for which have only recently surfaced.

Mayor Katie Rosenberg deferred questions about the development process to Brodek and questions about advocacy efforts to the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce.

“The city is not involved in the making or presenting of the ads. There has been some advertising advocacy lately, most recently your outlet published a story about the billboard in Mosinee pushing for a Wausau administrator,” Rosenberg said. “When I was on the county board, the mining lobby published ads advocating for opening up metallic sulfide mining. I can’t tell you how common it is but I know I’ve seen it before.”

Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen said ultimately, the Council will decide on what is offered, and that is still in negotiation. The ads, Rasmussen said, could lead to increased public engagement on the issue that will help council members better understand the public’s interest.

“Ads or no ads, the decisions that need to be made will be made when they are ready for action, so there’s no need for us to criticize information being provided about the potential for the site, and my experience has been that the community is largely positive on the project rather than see nothing happen there for years,” Rasmussen said.

Eckmann said: “It has been our ongoing goal to position our city, county and region for a successful future. To accomplish this, we must create robust places that attract entrepreneurs, major employers, and others who will fuel the economic and cultural growth of the Greater Wausau area. The mall revitalization project helps us to accomplish this goal. We are excited to release this new ad campaign and see this project across the finish line.”