By Shereen Siewert
State officials on Thursday announced Wausau will receive two grants to support an affordable housing initiative and a local nonprofit center, but a controversial request for millions of dollars to build a downtown pedestrian bridge was denied.
Wausau will receive $1.75 million for a plan to build a 50-unit affordable housing complex on the former West Side Battery and L&S Printing property, according to the Wisconsin Department of Administration. The city will also receive $1.5 million for the Community Partners Campus, a shared-space facility that will serve homeless and low-income residents on the city’s east side. Wausau Economic Development Director Liz Brodek, in an email, said city officials are “thrilled to have received such substantial grants for our community.”
But Wausau did not receive the bulk of the $15 million in Neighborhood Investment funding the city could access through the grant process, which relied on monies derived from the American Rescue Plan. The remaining $11.75 million in funding requests included using at least $10.5 million to build a pedestrian bridge envisioned by Wausau Opportunity Zone, Inc. as part of the mall redevelopment project. The city will not receive those funds, Brodek said.
In November, Brodek said the bridge project fit the grant criteria because the fund was created to help neighborhoods recover from the pandemic and the pandemic “caused the mall to close at a pace no one expected.”
But some members of the Wausau City Council and the community sharply criticized the decision to fit the bridge into the grant program, which was created to help communities tackle projects that address housing, transit and childcare initiatives with a particular emphasis on increasing services for underserved people and populations. Others pointed to documents that showed the mall’s closure was long in the works before the pandemic struck.
“So you said these funds could be applied to things like child care and housing, and we’re applying them to a curvy little pedestrian walkway?” Dist. 3 Alderman Tom Kilian, who represents the district that includes the mall redevelopment project, said in November.
Kilian then publicly urged residents to contact the DOA, and state records show multiple sent letters to the state urging officials to reject Wausau’s bridge application. Kilian also contacted Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (see below) expressing his concerns.
Taxpayers have so far spent millions to support redevelopment on the former mall property. In October 2019, the Council approved a proposal by WOZ to purchase the Wausau Center 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. Then in November 2020, the Wausau City Council approved a proposal to spend an additional $4.7 million to help fund demolition and redevelopment of the mall space. Wausau Finance Director MaryAnne Groat in December wrote to state lawmakers – without input from the Wausau City Council – requesting legislation that would allow for a new tax increment district at the site. That legislation, which passed the state Assembly, has been pulled from consideration by the state Senate after strong public outcry.
State funding will, however, support a project spearheaded by Gorman & Co., LLC, the same group that is undergoing a $20 million historic rehabilitation of the Landmark Apartments in downtown Wausau, to create an affordable housing apartment complex. Gorman will pay Wausau $100,000 for the parcel as part of an agreement contingent upon an environmental investigation for the project, which would generate roughly $2.23 million in annual tax revenue base for the city after completion.
Funds will also support the Community Partners Campus Project. The CPC, which will be located at 364 Grand Ave., will include an approximately 8,000-square-foot food bank and warehouse and provide space for between eight and 15 nonprofit partners, creating a “one-stop shop” to match residents with needed services.
Dist. 10 Alderman Lou Larson applauded the state’s decision, calling the grants a “huge boost” for the community. Larson also called the state’s decision to deny the bridge funding a victory for Wausau citizen concerned about wasteful spending.
Brodek, in an email to Wausau Pilot & Review, pointed out that Wausau is the only central Wisconsin community to win the grants.
“We hope you’re as excited as we are,” Brodek said.
See the full list of grantees here.