welcoming and community-oriented
With an eye to the future, Wausau, WI keeps the community spirit at heart
Nestled on either side of the Wisconsin River in the heart of the state lies the city of Wausau. Originally known as Big Bull Falls, Wausau was settled in the late 1830s and built, quite literally, on a foundation of pine that led to the establishment of a true village in the 1860s. Today, Wausau remains well-known for its natural surroundings and opportunities for outdoor recreation, as well as a plethora of historic, geographical, agricultural, cultural, and event attractions.
Wausau’s Mayor, Katie Rosenberg, and Economic Development Manager, Randy Fifrick, describe their home as a community that offers a unique combination of city and country living in one of Wisconsin’s best locations.
Mayor Rosenberg begins, “Wausau is a place of phenomenal natural beauty that occupies a fantastic central location. We sit at a crossroads of two major highways, which allows for convenient travel throughout the area. This alone attracts visitors, commuters, and residents alike.”
“What makes them stay, though, is the amazing setting and natural resources embedded into and around our city. For example, we have a world class kayak course that runs right through our downtown district. Rib Mountain State Park is nice and close, which is a wonderful asset for those who enjoy skiing, snowboarding, biking, and hiking. No matter where you are in the city, it really only takes you 10 minutes to get to some sort of outdoor activity or adventure,” she continues.
Wausau’s economic development team is currently undergoing a transition, from its traditional focus on job creation, commercial businesses, and industrial infrastructure, to a new emphasis on residential growth. Major projects currently underway at Wausau include 200+ residential apartments along the Wisconsin river, two planned affordable housing ventures, and a mixed-use development in the city’s downtown region.
Fifrick shares, “We were very fortunate to have a group of foundations come together and form a partnership with us in support of redeveloping our downtown mall, which was struggling to remain afloat even prior to the pandemic.”
He adds, “This last fall, we were able to execute a development agreement for phase one of the downtown mall redevelopment. This project will add 150 apartment units into the area with retail space on the ground floor, a truly mixed-use project. We’re really excited about the future of that space.”
The City also worked with the State of Wisconsin to upgrade the renowned Landmark building, which was developed in the mid-1920s. Having undergone a variety of transformations over the last century, the Landmark has followed Wausau’s new affinity for mixed-use buildings and now features affordable housing for approximately 100 residents as well as business, retail, and hospitality spaces.
This push to increase Wausau’s residential capability comes as a response to a lack of workers available to local businesses.
Fifrick explains, “This is a nationwide problem that has generally meant companies don’t have enough workers to fuel expansion and growth, especially with the rise of remote work. What many people don’t understand is, while Wausau is made up of five or six different communities, villages, and towns that make up our metro area, the city itself is pretty much landlocked. “
“Our focus has been on redeveloping existing areas rather than new single-family homes, which take up valuable land. One of our city’s most significant offerings is our central location, but Wausau also maintains a slower pace and fosters a positive work-life balance for those who come to live and work here,” Fifrick notes.
Mayor Rosenberg chimes in. “Remote work becoming a more viable option for companies and their workers has had a big impact on this problem, simply because people have far more choice on where they want to live. By really focusing on the utilization of our natural amenities and upgrading our city infrastructure, we are working to attract new residents as well as retain the workers that are currently living here.”
Pausing to reflect, Mayor Rosenberg continues, “It’s something we take very seriously. People are moving down to the Southern states in droves- they’re leaving the Midwest in general. Last year, we had 6000 open jobs in our county alone. 11% of our population is Hmong, hailing from refugees who came to our area fleeing the Secret War. We have also welcomed refugees from Afghanistan, many of whom are highly skilled folks who have worked alongside our military. I’m also currently in talks with the Department of State regarding the number of visas available to people who want to come and work here.”
Infrastructure investments have been another high priority for city management of late, including $44 million dedicated to a new drinking water facility and almost $90 million spent on wastewater treatment refurbishments. Mayor Rosenberg details other infrastructure projects currently underway.
“We’ve been working on the most efficient way to upgrade the lead service lines under our city, many of which need repairs or refurbishing. We’re looking at how we can identify which ones are still in existence, what they need to be brought back into service, and how much time it will take to do so. Ideally, we want to get this done in the next 15 years.”
Fifrick is quick to highlight that “roads are also huge for us and require significant resources. Whether you’re filling potholes or reconstructing roads, the cost in time and money is quite high, so it’s important to plan time carefully and have the right partnerships to service those projects.”
Green initiatives are interlinked with improving infrastructure, Mayor Rosenburg says. “Our drinking water upgrade came about largely as a response to PFAS contamination. The new facility removes that, so our water quality now is wonderful. We are planning to build a solar array to power that facility as well. Our sustainability committee is drafting a greenhouse gas policy and we are closely listening to our locals’ calls to move away from fossil fuels. Things like subsidized rain barrels and electric charging stations are also on the books.”
Wausau’s tourism economy, which experienced a significant decline during the COVID-19 pandemic, can now look forward to a boost following a revamp to the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Mr. Fifrick explains, “The Bureau now has new staff, members of the board, and new opportunities for growth. They advocated heavily for upgrades to the Rib Mountain State Park, which is a huge attraction for seasonal visitors. The benefit from that is plain to see-you can go to local breweries on a Friday night in winter and see Chicago’s skiers there, supporting our local businesses.”
Mayor Rosenburg continues, “We also have world-class art in Wausau such as the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, where the birds in art exhibits are world-renowned. The Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art pulls in people from all over as well. We also have fantastic theater opportunities, thanks to our central location. We often get shows coming to our Grand Theatre that would usually have no business in a city of our size, but because they’re coming through on their tour, we’re a great stop.”
Having completed the city’s first strategic plan in 2022, which outlines five key priorities for development, Wausau is keen to be known as an area rich in opportunity, community, and growth. The City has formed a number of key partnerships throughout the region that remain integral to the city’s progress and success.
They include the Greater Wausau Prosperity Partnership, Wausau River District Main Street Program, Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce, Department of Natural Resources, Northcentral Wisconsin Regional Plan Commission, and Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
“If it wasn’t for our community coming together in support, we certainly wouldn’t have made the progress we have in the timeline that we’ve managed. Our thanks go out to everyone involved for their dedication and care,” Mayor Rosenburg concludes.
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AT A GLANCE
What: City bordering the Wisconsin river offering a unique blend of city and country living
Where: Marathon County, Wisconsin
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