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By Tom Kilian
Many who were born and raised in town, or who have lived here for many years, are well aware of a local history and public-private sector dynamic marked by the disproportionate influence and power of a select few. It is often casually referred to as Wausau’s Good Ol’ Boys culture.
This culture is associated with municipal government ceding large amounts of public monies and public decision-making to private interests, often to the community’s detriment.
Names of private interest groups may vary over time, but this local reality has not.
Rather than an urban legend, such a concentration of influence and power has been well documented in the past. It continues to this day, as we note from the recent mall redevelopment misadventure — a project shepherded by foundations and opaque private organizations that will include $10.8 million in public money for the first phase alone.
And while people in Wausau are fed up with committing tens of millions of tax dollars to upscale private developments while legitimate community needs go unmet or underfunded, these poor policy outcomes will never change until this longstanding local Good Ol’ Boys culture is finally cleaned up.
Treating Our Community as Their Monopoly Board
Wausau’s historical public-private endeavors have reflected secrecy and exclusion, sometimes making our town seem more like an oligarchy ruled by a small set of the usual wealthy players, rather than a democracy. Let’s look at just a few examples.
- The Wausau Group reportedly slowly acquired land for 10 years before making a public announcement in the late 1970s of the mall plans. This small conglomerate of powerful business people also came under scrutiny for their role in the initial incubator project and the River Run Conference Center that was to be built on riverfront property. The local article titled “Does the Group wield too much influence?” inventoried such issues.
- In the 1980s, charges were made about conflict of interest against two officers of the Marathon County Economic Development Corporation (MCDEVCO) by a Wausau alderperson in regard to the Incubator Project and the proposed sale of the contaminated Connor Forest Industries land to the City of Wausau. The alder stated that the MCDEVCO officers involved, who were tied to local real estate and engineering interests, had stood to benefit financially from the deal.
- In the 1990s, Central Wausau Progress (CWP) pushed for the Century Project – involving $58 million in public money for downtown redevelopment, per 1995 estimates – and it launched a propaganda-like campaign leading up to the referendum to get voters to support the project (they did not). The campaign included a video CWP commissioned to promote the Century Project, “A Tale of Two Cities,” but the work failed to mention that the California project in the film that was intended to be a success story to promote Century Project actually suffered $20 million in losses at that time.
- A few years ago, the CBL mall redevelopment plans were discussed in closed-door meetings between “city leaders” and CBL, without public disclosure of, or involvement in, the plans. The situation was the focus of the 2015 Wausau Daily Herald article “Wausau mall plan revealed only to a few.” The city council ultimately approved that bad deal, but it never materialized. CBL later filed for bankruptcy and was investigated by the FBI.
- In 2019, the City paid $1 million so that Wausau Opportunity Zone (WOZ) – an entity then heralded as a “nonprofit” in the news – could purchase the mall for philanthropic purposes and generate a redevelopment plan based on future public participation, it was said. But, as it turns out, WOZ is not a nonprofit, no meaningful public participation process ever occurred, and now Phase I of the mall site will consist of luxury apartments funded with 45% public assistance when comparing TIF dollars committed to the guaranteed minimum assessed value in the development agreement.
And the hits keep coming.
The Wausau People are the Real “Wausau Group”
I said in a speech years ago that while the names of barons and industrialists may dot streets, buildings, and schools here – it is not, and never was, the endeavors of a few and the wealthy that made and built this region. It was the endeavors of many, often of a much more modest background. I reminded in the speech that those who handled the lumber, worked the machines in factories, or occupied the insurance cubicles — they were and are the lifeblood of this region.
So while the paternalistic mythology of Wausau’s success is that it stemmed from an elite few, the reality of Wausau’s success is that it stemmed from the collective works of our community, together.
Recognizing that, together, the Wausau people are, and always have been, the real Wausau Group is the first step in cleaning up our problematic Good Ol’ Boys culture.
Citizen-driven policy reforms related to public funds and public-private relationships can and should follow.
Welcome home to Wausau.
Tom Kilian represents Dist. 3 on the Wausau City Council.