New Urban Developments in Wausau Seek to Lure 'Creative Class'

Economic diversity and an intergenerational appeal are helping Marathon County play to a younger,; better-educated audience than many other mid-sized, mid-American cities

On Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 17:59

Economic diversity and an intergenerational appeal are helping Marathon County play to a younger‚ better-educated audience than many other mid-sized‚ mid-American cities. A flurry of new urban developments are under way to ensure that‚ while Wausau continues to offer a lot for families‚ it also holds promise for the tech-savvy twentysomethings‚ entrepreneurs‚ artists and other members of the so-called creative class‚ says City Council President Jim Rosenberg.

“There has been an incredible boom of activity that is bringing a lot of capital here – not just generated here but coming in from elsewhere‚” Rosenberg says. “One of the main things we want to make sure of is that we have good workers. Part of that is having an attractive city. Today’s young people tend to pick a place to live and then find a job‚ so having the kind of place people want to live is critical.” Recent projects in downtown include the $14 million Gateway Hotel project on Second Street‚ new corporate office space and retail construction‚ conversion of a traditional mall into an open-air pedestrian mall and development of an “arts block” – a string of once-dilapidated buildings transformed into a creative civic space. Low-interest loans‚ façade grants and tax-increment financing are tools the city has used to encourage private investment in a number of projects‚ especially those that make the downtown area more lively and attractive.

“We’re trying to create a stimulating environment‚” Rosenberg says. “We’re doing things to appeal to a broader range of people – the young bohemians‚ the creative class.” That’s not to say that what makes up the backbone of the community – its traditional business sector and strong‚ family-friendly culture – are being ignored. The city recently invested more than $2.5 million to expand the Wausau West Business and Industrial Park‚ leading to more than a million square feet of new construction with a commitment of more than 400 new‚ permanent full-time jobs. Other signs of Marathon County’s business growth include a new building for Ameritech Corp. telecommunications company; the opening of several new retail stores; auto and motorcycle dealerships; construction of the Lodge at Cedar Creek; and the construction of the lodge at Cedar Creek; and the Development in Weston‚ which includes a new hospital and clinic.

The area’s longstanding commitment to education continues as well. “We’ve either remodeled or built seven schools since 1999‚” says Charles T. Skurka‚ superintendent of the Wausau School District. “The flagship project is our brand-new Wausau East High School.” The $43 million campus will serve 1‚700 students on 110 acres northeast of town. More than $20 million in additional funding is going to upgrade existing elementary schools‚ Skurka says. Meanwhile‚ the high school’s original 6-acre downtown site‚ including its vintage 1934 building‚ is getting a major overhaul. “We’ve sold that building to a niche-market developer who is developing it into loft apartments‚” Skurka says. Bringing more people downtown to live‚ work and play is one of the city’s major goals. So when Wausau Benefits Inc.‚ a health-plan administrator‚ needed a new parking ramp for its 350 employees‚ community leaders went into action.

“We’re always looking for partnerships‚” Rosenberg says‚ “and we thought it was important to get retail into the mix. We didn’t want people walking past a concrete block of parked cars.” What resulted was a $19 million development anchored by attractive brick storefronts. “The stores animate the street and add an interesting architectural feature to the downtown‚” the council president says‚ adding that he expects more such developments in the future.

“Even though it may be easier to develop in the suburbs‚ it’s easy to see downtown becoming more desirable‚” Rosenberg adds. “These things build their own momentum and synergy.