Dave Eckmann

Dave Eckmann, Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce president, is immersed in visions of the future of downtown Wausau. The Business News photo by Jerry Rhoden

Like any seeds buried under the Northcentral Wisconsin snow, it may take the warm thaw of spring to begin showing the bloom of prosperity.

But it’s just such a garden of opportunity envisioned by the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce and area developers for 2022.

With last spring’s demolition and removal of the Wausau Center Mall, which opened in August 1983, the area has been cleared — literally and figuratively — for a new era of downtown development. Wausau Opportunity Zone (WOZ) led the purchase of the mall from Rialto Capital Management in February 2020 and has been the driving force in the Downtown Refresh that seeks to remake the area between the old mall and the riverfront.

A clear vision and well-laid plans, however, don’t always ensure a smooth transition.

“Overcoming people who don’t want change,” Chamber president David Eckmann said of one of the big challenges facing the project, “but we have better luck getting people on board when we can explain the ‘why.’ ”

An ambitious project such as the Downtown Refresh will need a champion, said Eckmann, who will be taking up that mantel as president of both the chamber and of WOZ. The project is funded by two prominent local philanthropic organizations, the Judd S. Alexander Foundation (est. 1973) and the Dwight & Linda Davis Foundation (2009).

“The challenge is moving forward but without going too fast,” Eckmann said, alluding to the reassurances of incremental progress. “We’re really trying to build a competitive community for business. The chamber is going to play a different kind of role in all of this.”

The planned mixed-use development will open up several of the streets blocked previously by the mall. It also will include ground-level retail with upper-level housing, a beer garden, a fourseason public market, and a wide, winding walkway connecting it all to the riverfront.

We can compete with places like Nashville (Tenn.), Green Bay, and others because outdoor recreation gives us a competitive edge. We’re really at the crossroads of commerce.

—Dave Eckmann, president,

Greater Wausau

Chamber of Commerce

There will even remain shadows of the mall, as HOM Furniture — which moved into the former Younkers space in June 2019 — will remain alongside the parking structure at the southeast corner of that property.

The first installments will open this summer with a 166- unit apartment complex, reopening of 2nd and 3rd streets, and followed this fall by a nonprofit Children’s Imaginarium.

Human resources departments around the area may vary in industry, but they share a common challenge — attraction and retention of talent.

“Everyone I talk to cites the need for a strong community,” Eckmann said.

Marathon County’s population has remained statistically flat, around 135,000, since 2010. So unless that number creeps upward, competition could only increase for local talent, and area employers could turn attention outward for remote “work from home” opportunities. Unemployment in Marathon County dropped to around 2.6 percent by November, down from 3.3 percent in August