Citizen Wausau

A Site About Life in Wausau, Wisconsin

Voice the official Citizen Wausau blog

Where Does Wausau Go?

by on January 4th, 2008

What an amazing year 2007 was. It’s brought about a a lot of change in our community, and in some ways, I myself will never be the same.

A few months ago, I was walking into my friend Forest Young’s drugstore to pick up a prescription. As I entered, I was quickly asked to leave and not touch anything. Why? Was I a loitering miscreant? No, not this time. It was because the ladies behind the counter had just been accosted by a gun-wielding burglar.

You can imagine how my paradigm of “safety” had just gone out the window. This was the second time in a month, and now it’s happening with even more frequency, again this week in fact in nearby Schofield. Jeff Hardel & company have got their work cut out for them.

So CRIME has become a looming reality, for some more real than others.

Also, 2007 was a time of growth. Many new developments came together, big buildings, some small ones, but all in all, our city “looks” like it’s growing. But here lies one of my concerns – where is the new business we’d like to see coming in?

I have met a number of folks from the new Wausau Business Development Center in the Westside Industrial Park. There’s really some cool stuff happening there – military-grade airless tires, high-efficiency solar paneling, and giant Tinker Toys, well sorta like that. The point is, cool stuff is happening, and congrats to Wausau Community & Economic Development for spearheading the whole operation. These are highly inventive start-ups and while this is exactly the kind of stuff we want to happen here, it’ll take some time for them to get to the point where sizable job creation occurs. We need more of that. It’s good. It’s smart.

Polywood Fabrication also broke ground for a huge new manufacturing facility – that’s new jobs. The Marshfield Clinic is going to create dozens of new positions for doctors in Wausau – that’s also new jobs for support staff.

But, given all this, I still have a nagging concern: how will Wausau define itself in this new year and coming years? Wausau Insurance, which embodied the character (brand) of our community at a national level decades ago, is now owned by a Boston-based company and has lost much of its former glory. Wausau Paper is closing plants. Fiskars outsourced 300 jobs to China. Business is changing, and in some cases, leaving.

On the other hand, Aspirus is now the town’s leading employer; Kolbe & Kolbe thrives as well, and Greenheck stands as a global leader in their industry. This is one of the good things about our area’s diversified economy and workforce; we are blessed with many medical professionals and a whole lot of skilled labor. But ultimately, I don’t know if these companies or industries alone can push us forward. Not like Wausau needs to be pushed. I’d like to illustrate my point by going on a little history tour:

Yawkey, McIndoe, Stewart and Alexander – these familiar names in modern Wausau (museum, streets, foundation) come from pivotal individuals associated with the lumber companies from the city’s past. In the early part of the 20th century, collaboration by these and other business leaders helped transform Wausau from a wilderness crossroads to a center of diversified industry.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a series of families moved to Wausau from primarily the East Coast of the U.S. to establish lumber companies in mills along the banks of the Wisconsin River flowing through downtown Wausau with lumber supplied from forests in the Northwoods. These lumber barons were very successful and their business savvy and civic skills helped them realize that their combined success placed in jeopardy the nearby forests supplying their mills. These men were competitive but also collegial and entrepreneurial — they began to work closely together to develop various start-up businesses to compensate for the eventual demise of the nearby lumber supply. They pooled their talents and knowledge to diversify and create new enterprises to grow and nurture a city that they loved and a place that they called home.

Their collective power and vision lifted the city from the decline in the logging industry through diversification into banking, insurance, machinery, wood products, retail and paper-making, all while bringing the needed infrastructure, such as electrical power, street cars … and culture … to make Wausau a vital and functioning city. Many of the individuals leading the change formed an informal work coalition called the Wausau Group. Its members held varied roles and their involvement energized the city’s growth, spanning multiple decades providing the framework where in the 21st Century, Wausau is the regional hub for industry, commerce, shopping and culture.

Key individuals in the Wausau Group included: Cyrus Yawkey, John F. Ross, Walter Alexander, D. C. Everest, Judd S. Alexander, Neal Brown, Walter McIndoe, Jacob Mortensen, C. C. Barker, Fowler Stone, William Mason and A. P. Woodson. The enterprises that they created included: Wausau Insurance, Wausau Paper, Marathon Paper Mills (later Weyerhaeuser,) Masonite wood-composite siding, Stone Lumber Supply (formerly Mortenson and Stone) and Marathon Electric.

– research by Kevin Korpela

Wausau has a long history of entrepreneurial energy, civic-mindedness, and collaborative approach that I believe needs to be re-ignited. I see a bright future for Wausau, and it’s going to take some people with huge vision to take us there. It is time for us to realize that we are no longer a small town, but in fact a diverse and capable city.

We are again at a crossroads – where the industry of the last century cannot be relied upon to take us to the same places in this century. The world is changing, and so we must change with it. I’d venture to say that technology is the single most effective catalyst to changing the economic horizon for Wausau. We have innovative companies here already doing really cool stuff, so we could and should capitalize on that – but even more important, we need to invest in future start-ups, Web application builders and technical education. There is an opportunity here to lead the way in our state. Madison may have the bio-tech industry activity, but we could find other areas to excel.

And so, I suggest, let’s reform the Wausau Group, or at least revisit their vision. Create not just a board of Yawkeys, McIndoes, Stewarts and Alexanders, but key creative thinkers, technologists, strategic planners and then market the snot out of our resources. Build a new Brand for Wausau.

2008 promises to be a huge transitional year; new civic leader contests, new congressional run-ups – more than politics, there are economic factors: volatile housing market, inflation, an unpredictable stock market, and global pressures.

Would it be to our advantage to “sell” Wausau on the merits of a better quality of life, moderate cost of living and a more stable real estate market? I’d say yes.

Could we attract new business and develop specific districts to contain them? Yes, there’s the region immediately north of downtown that is suffering from blight and completely in need of Urban Renewal.

Should we take advantage of some of our own community initiatives to build low-cost, high-efficiency buildings based in sustainability and conservation concepts? Why not? In fact, most assuredly.

I say, let’s set the new standards. Go for growth. Attract high-tech and skilled labor, and retain our graduating youth.

But it all starts somewhere with someone.

We have a new Mayoral election coming up – one that I think will be very competitive. And it couldn’t come at a more defining moment in our history. While it’s still too early to make a decision, I will say this to whomever carries the reins – it’s time for Wausau to fundamentally change its ways.

No more closed door sessions. No more cat fights and snide remarks. We the people are looking for sharing, user participation, openness, collaboration and inspiration. Whoever you may be:

  • do not hide in your office and let the world pass us by,
  • be with the people,
  • take pride in and promote the image and brand of our great city,
  • invest in good ideas, even if they don’t seem great,
  • be willing to take some risks,
  • hire consultants if you need them,
  • find the innovators and put them on your boards,
  • hire a public relations or marketing person who will craft and communicate the city’s messages.

We can help you, but you must be willing and open.

If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.

Woody Allen

Tags & Categories

, , , ,