Life is all about seizing opportunities. It’s about knowing when to close some doors. And at other times, it’s about knowing what doors to open. The key, though, is to not be afraid to swing that door wide open when opportunity comes knocking.
There’s been quite a bit of knocking these days in the city of Wausau, located in the Wisconsin River Valley in central Wisconsin. Doors seem to be opening up left and right, bringing an influx of new opportunities and energy. The name Wausau, given by the Ojibwe Indians, means A Far Away Place. But for this city of 40,000, in their 151st year, it’s anything but far away. In fact, they pride themselves on being accessible, affable, and affordable. And that’s just the A’s.
The Right Keys
“We’ve got what people need,” states Wausau Economic Development Manager, Randy Fifrick. “You don’t need to travel to Milwaukee or Madison to get something. It’s here now.” Wausau was recently ranked in the Top 10 Most Affordable Metro Areas by Rocket Homes. “I think that really shows part of what makes our area so great– it’s such a great place to live. We’ve got great outdoor recreation all around. We’ve got forests, great fishing, great hunting, bird viewing— whatever you want, we’ve got that,” continues Frifrick.
Wausau is a nature mecca, drawing visitors and locals alike to enjoy the beautiful outdoors. But they also “serve as an urban hub for a lot of northern and western Wisconsin,” explains Fifrick. “There’s a lot of people from Michigan that come down here to do their shopping… we’re that big city but we don’t have that big city feel.”
“I think that what makes our city really great is just the people that live here, work here, and run businesses here,” continues Fifrick. Call it that famous, intangible, Midwestern-nice. “We set that precedent on being kind to each other,” adds Wausau Mayor, Katie Rosenberg. “We encourage that.”
Rolling out the Welcome Mat
Although Fifrick has only been in Wausau for 2 years, he’s worked in the region for 14 years. “When I first started,” he says, “economic development meant trying to create jobs and bring in jobs.” That’s shifted in the past few years. He’s no longer focused on chasing big companies and creating more industrial jobs. “We need people,” he shares bluntly. “So we’ve been putting a lot of focus into placemaking and into our residential experience. We are trying to ensure that our community is a place that people want to be. We want to attract young millennials. We want to attract people that are raising families. We want to make sure that there’s adequate opportunities available to everybody that chooses to live in north or central Wisconsin.”
That placemaking– creating places that people want to be– is happening all over Wausau these days. It used to be the downtown mall. The shutting of those doors, thanks in part to both shopping habits and the effects of Covid, was immense. That big empty space– that place– was useless. That was until some visionaries stepped in and reimagined that space. It was purchased and demoed by some public and private partners. In June, they are breaking ground on an incredible new mixed-use space. It will have 154 residential units, with ground floor retail. There will be green space and trails. It will be vibrant and attractive, bringing a new energy to the central downtown area.
“We have a huge opportunity that we’re capitalizing on in the downtown renovation,” believes Wausau Community Development Director, Liz Brodek. “Not just in the state, but in the country in being able to redevelop the core of our downtown to fit the needs of the next generation and of the next several generations… It’s incredibly exciting.”
This sort of thing isn’t unusual in Wausau, though. They’ve been in the business of placemaking for years. Take their 400 Block. Over twenty years ago, it was a regular city block, right in the downtown, dotted with old buildings. But the city tore them down and built a huge greenspace, complete with a stage and a fountain. “It’s just lots of space for people to gather and picnic. If you were to come on a Wednesday night in July, you would see thousands of people from all across our area gathering and listening to music,” comments Rosenberg. “It’s awesome.”
The 400 Block is just one venue for Wausau’s art and music scene. They have three art museums, including the highly acclaimed Woodson Art Museum, that hosts its popular Birds in Art exhibit each fall. In addition, Wausau has a thriving jazz subculture, with large events like Jazz on the River and the Big Bull Falls Blues Festival. There’s also the historic Grand Theater, which welcomes a stream of national tours.
A Strong Security System
Creating a positive residential experience is what drives this leadership team, actually. They are young, savvy, and ambitious. They bring a fresh energy, epitomizing camaraderie. Teamwork has been crucial, with all of the challenges the last few years have brought to their doorstep. Rosenberg admits she’s more aggressive than “your average Midwestern mayor.” Fortunately, for Wausau, she’s not afraid to bust open some doors.
Last year, after a neighboring community tested positive for PFAS in one of their water wells, the DNR suggested that Wausau test theirs. The results were shocking: every single one of their wells was contaminated. “I lost an entire year of sleep and probably 15 years off my life,” Rosenberg laughs. All jokes aside, this young mayor jumped in, with both feet. “I didn’t know anything about PFAS,” she confesses. But Rosenburg learned quickly. Armed with a crash course on all things water and a strong penchant for advocacy, she started knocking on doors, quite literally, and asked for help. “I knocked on so many doors,” she remembers, “that finally, the White House invited me to come talk to them. I talked to the EPA- both federal and in our region. We also got an earmark from Senator Baldwin in the federal budget, which is great.” A new water treatment facility was already in the works, thankfully, so they were able to alter it to include water filtration for PFAS.
“I think it’s hard sometimes for the government to say, ‘Hey- we need help. We don’t have all of the answers. What can we do?’” comments Rosenberg. “And we did that. And it’s helping us a lot. We are a perfect case of what you can do and how you can handle it.”
“I’m really proud of the way that the city handled it,” Fifrick adds. “We got out in front of it.” The short term remedies included passing out pitchers and bottled water. The long term remedies are in process: the new Wausau drinking facility opened in December 2022. “We are now filtering every drop of water for PFAS,” Rosenberg proudly shares. It hasn’t been easy. It’s expensive. It’s extensive. Now, they are working to replace every lead pipe, with a 15 year plan. Rosenberg, though, hopes to complete the project in 5 years. (She’s aggressive, remember?)
Water, after all, is one of the natural resources here. The Wisconsin River runs right through the city and was a main source of industry for many years. It was a logger’s paradise: the beautiful forested midwest, coupled with an active river. Today, the river is home to Wausau’s Whitewater Park, a world-class canoe and kayak competition site. The park actually hosts some of the world’s largest competitions.
Wausau is using that riverfront to draw more people in. New walking paths and more welcoming spaces are part of another development project. “We’re putting a lot of money and investment back into that area,” Fifrick states. “We want to ensure that it’s open to the public so that anyone can take a walk there and enjoy that area… to just make it a better place for everybody.”
That idea of making Wausau a better place for everybody is a mantra this leadership team takes seriously.
“One thing I keep hearing from people,” Rosenberg reveals, “is that we can’t find enough people to work. So we’ve been really aggressively pursuing the Department of State and trying to get more visas. I’ve been pushing because we need more people to come here.”
Wausau opened their first refugee office in 20 years at the end of 2021. “It’s really exciting,” Rosenberg gushes. “We welcomed 70 individuals from Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul. We have about 40-50 folks from the Democratic Republic of Congo. And we will keep welcoming people for as long as that office is open. And I hope that office outlasts me, frankly,” she laughs.
“I think what we are seeing in the Midwest,” she continues, “is an outflow of people. It feels like people are migrating away and we’re getting older so we really need to reinvigorate our population, too. And so that means welcoming all kinds of people. And I just hope we get beyond some of the coercive dialogue around diversity inequity because the only way we survive as a city is by being welcoming.”
Open doors are nothing new for Wausau. They’ve been welcoming newcomers for decades. “We are really lucky. Our population is pretty diverse for a city in the middle of the country,” states Rosenberg. In the 1970s, Wausau welcomed Hmong refugees after the Vietnam War. Today, Hmongs make up 11% of this midwestern town’s population. They honor that diversity, too, with the Hmong Wausau Festival, each summer. “It’s one of the biggest Hmong Festivals in the country,” boasts Rosenberg. At its peak, in 2019, they brought in 30,000 people. “It was huge,” Rosenberg continues. “We had hotel rooms hours away that were full of people. It was exciting stuff.”
Wausau is all about opening doors for people. They recently opened up their Community Partners Campus, which houses most of the nonprofits that serve their most vulnerable population. It’s all under one roof now, so people don’t have to ping-pong all around the city to get the services they need. “It’s an innovative and awesome thing. You go in there,” Brodek adds, “and there’s a wall they are growing lettuce on, to give to their participants. So the food pantry feels like a grocery store. It really gives some dignity to folks and affirms the humanity of people who use it. I don’t think we see that enough in basic needs services.”
Wausau is guiding small business owners, too, with their Entrepreneurial Education Center. It provides physical space, mentorships, programing, financial advice, and education. “There’s a lot of opportunities for growing businesses or even existing businesses that are moving into a new place,” Fifrick shares. “We’re all about trying to support our local businesses or smaller businesses to make sure that they have the resources that they need to grow and thrive in the community.”
What makes a community thrive? “I think the best economic development you can do,” believes Rosenberg, “is to have an amazing school district. We’re so lucky we are surrounded by two great public school districts.” Wausau also has Newman Catholic School District, fresh off the field this fall with a state football championship, followed by a basketball state championship in March. There’s also Northcentral Technical College, along with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point at Wausau and the Medical College of Wisconsin- Central Wisconsin, which offers an innovative 3-year medical program.
Wausau is also rolling out the welcome mat to the new Children’s Imaginarium, a 10,000 square foot children’s museum that will feature highly interactive exhibits, all rooted in STEM activities and programming. “We’re super excited about bringing this in,” Fifrick shares. “It’s just another great opportunity for families, especially with young kids, to have a place where they can visit. And not only that, he continues, “but it’s going to bring in visitors as well.”
Wausau won The Great American Mainstreet
Award in 2019. Rosenberg credits their active downtown mainstreet association– the River District– with raising the bar and bringing in all sorts of new events to Wausau.
“We are really well positioned as a mid-sized city for being the place where people see themselves– for a lifetime– because it’s a place that you can come in and create the community that you want to live in– which is not very easy to do in bigger communities,” states Brodek. “Everything is really accessible here. We’ve got big city amenities, but we’ve got the small town accessibility. It’s a really unique combination that positions us well for the future… Coupled with our natural resources and outdoor tourism– it’s just a super exciting time for us.”
Wausau is learning that when one door closes, another one opens.
Sometimes, you can’t control when a door shuts in life. Sometimes, you might even guide it closed, knowing a new door may usher in even greater things.
Opening up a new door takes courage: it’s hard to look beyond what you can’t always see. But, more often than not, opportunity is standing there, wondering what took you so long to welcome it home.