The Wisconsin tradition meant more than a simple belief in the people. It also meant a faith in the application of intelligence and reason to the problems of society…
– Adlai Stevenson
Small town vibe: huge eco heart.
Dividing Wausau into the East and West sides, the Wisconsin river cuts through this lush city, once occupied for thousands of years by the Ojibwe people. Wausau means “a faraway place” or “a place which can be seen from far away” in the Ojibwe language.
The city is known for its pine forests and their harvesting at Stevens’ Point, German immigration, and helping the Hmong population settle here from Southeast Asia (after the Vietnam war,) which helped facilitate a more diverse community in the 1970s. In the 1990s, several old buildings in the center of downtown were demolished, creating “the 400 Block,” an open, grassy area with sidewalks. This block is a center for festivals and gatherings. Throughout recent years, Wausau has redesigned the 400 Block, adding a stage and other renovations that cost roughly $2 million.
Cities don’t just plan themselves. Urban planning, now a thriving occupation as populations grow, focus on how to develop spaces in cities, towns, parks, and everything in between. I spoke with Wausau Wisconsin’s Transportation Planner, Andrew Lynch, about what makes a healthy city.
Q: What is Wausau, Wisconsin like?
The City of Wausau has a population of about 40,000 and anchors a metro area of about 80,000. Marathon County is approximately the size of Rhode Island and is one of the last agriculture intensive areas before you hit the heavily wooded northern regions of the state.
Wausau is very much in the center of the state with easy (in a Midwestern sense) access to Madison, Green Bay, and Minneapolis.
The small town vibe and access to the outdoors is a big positive. One of the biggest summer events is Concerts on the Square. The park is usually packed with a couple thousand people enjoying dinner and drinks while listening to music with friends. With such a popular event, the space is at a premium. People arrive at noon, place their chairs, and then leave them until they return at 6:00 p.m.
Q: What is a new development happening now in Wausau in terms of living space?
There are new parks and housing along the riverfront in a long-term plan to redevelop previously industrial or unused space. The condos already built are showcased as Wausau River life. There is also a family friendly, activity heavy Park and a super fun restaurant and river patio. These locations push people to play outside and socialize.
In terms of State Parks, we are fortunate to have Rib Mountain State Park within our metro area. This park boasts the second highest geographical point in the state, multiple walking and hiking trails, boulders to climb, and winter downhill skiing.
Q: You are a bike enthusiast, would you say that is how you got into urban planning?
I own three bikes which is always one less than I need. I normally do the two mile commute to work by bike but have been working from home at my dining room table for the past year.
I got into urban planning a few years after my undergraduate degree was complete when I joined the University of Iowa Bicycle Advisory Committee. There were some planners assisting with that group and talking with them helped spur my interest.
Once a year, a friend who lives down the street and I commute to work by kayak. We do mountain biking and road biking in the summer and snowshoeing or skiing in the winter.
The winter is long and deep enough that you have to find a way to enjoy it. The summers are temperate and pleasant: the number of humid days can be counted on two hands. These activities keep me busy when I’m not renovating our house or making sawdust in my workshop.
Q: What do you like about your job?
Being the Transportation Planner for Marathon County, I get to work with local groups on projects with a special focus on the metro area that encompasses all or part of twelve areas.
These communities are all different. Wausau is the main city in the area with a traditional downtown; gridded streets, and homes of every age. The other communities range from more suburban developments with corridors of big box shopping, to former mill towns; areas that would be considered rural by any standard. One thing all of these places have in common is a willingness to have fun year round.
Q: Do you think transportation can make or break a city?
Transportation is very important to a community as it dictates how people are allowed to move around. I say ‘allowed’ because the nation’s transportation systems are very car-centric and in many places anything else is either difficult to use or feels dangerous.
I also look at this from an environmental viewpoint. This is due to the fact that about ⅓ of greenhouse gas emissions are from the transportation sector. Using non-polluting modes and cleaner technologies can go a long way to helping us meet our climate goals. This includes distribution of Federal transportation funds, transit planning, long range planning, and bicycle and pedestrian planning.
I really enjoy working with the local administrators, council members, and staff on projects or areas of concern.
My interest in transportation planning was spurred by the California High Speed Rail project. That massive project, and on a smaller level, my own foray into bike commuting, really spurred my interest in how people move around and between their communities.
Q: Who are you working with now to facilitate more non-car usage in the city?
Patrick Peckham is an alderperson with the City of Wausau. After a career in local journalism he retired and was elected to this position. Pat is an easygoing guy and willing to listen to the many different opinions presented at council meetings.
He is a long-time bike commuter and advocate and chairs the City Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee. One particular interest of his is solar power. In his short time on the council, he has made this a signature issue and the city has followed through by encouraging developers to install solar panels on new town-homes built on city land.
The future water treatment plant is also planning to install a large solar field to power their operations. Pat has had a positive impact on the community through his service.
Q: In order for people to reduce car usage and commute by bike, they need safe and easy passage. How have you helped influence this transition to more cycling in Wausau?
I am the staff member to the metro area Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee which has been an instrumental force in improving the type and number of bike lanes, trails and safe crossings. I love the idea of progress and positive change.
After graduate school, I had opportunities to work in larger communities, but from a professional standpoint, I recognized that it was easier to have a large impact in smaller communities.
Q: What’s an example of a recreational group that helps build community?
CWOCC, the Central Wisconsin Off-Road Cycling Coalition, is the local mountain bike group. It is the driving force behind the fantastic trail systems and will soon be applying for an IMBA Ride Center designation.An IMBA Ride Center is a method to designate areas in the country that have a range of quality riding types. All the big name places you’ve heard of have this designation and it would ‘put us on the map’ so to speak. Here is more information about IMBA.
Q: How easy is it to get around?
When people who are unfamiliar with the Wausau area ask how long it takes to get somewhere my standard answer is ‘less than 20 minutes’.
It’s one of those funny facts that happens to be true. From my front door, in 20 minutes, I access cross-country skiing or mountain biking at Nine Mile County Forest, downhill skiing and hiking at Rib Mountain State Park, kayaking on the Wisconsin River, or the city park with downhill mountain bike trails. There are wonderful park facilities all throughout the county, many of them with campsites.
Q: Elected in 2020 and an ex roller derby player, what is a positive action your new Mayor, Katie Rosenberg, a Progressive, is taking in Wausau?
The City of Wausau has started to request the installation of solar power on projects that use city-owned land. A new water treatment plant is currently being built and they just purchased land nearby to install a field of solar arrays that will help power the plant. You can read more about it here.
Q: You’ve established a healthy city that needs green space, easy transportation, growing businesses, and affordable entertainment. How can small cities keep populations from leaving?
This is really the place to be in the middle of the country if you want to have quick and easy access to outdoor activities.
The local Chamber of Commerce has developed a plan for attraction and retention of businesses built around emphasizing the high quality of life and outdoor amenities. We have corporate locations of Liberty Mutual and Footlocker which we would like to keep and some industry leaders like Greenheck (a leading supplier of air movement and air conditioning.) They all have to recruit nationally.
The Wausau area also has five microbreweries and one distillery as well as some amazing restaurants using meat and produce from local farms: Stoney Acres Farm, Red Door Family Farm, Ninepatch Farm, and Mullin’s Cheese.
We were also recently named a top ‘zoom-town’ so why not live here and work somewhere else?
Q: What are your parting thoughts about this thriving Midwest city?
I’m excited to say that Wausau was recognized in 2018 as the Best Small City for Biking by Places For Bikes. Here are some great bike links:
Mountain biking http://cwocc.org/
Iron Bull https://www.ironbull.org/
Bicycle Wausau www.bicyclewausau.org
Wausau MPO www.wausaumpo.org
Wausau Wisconsin hosts thirty-seven city parks, which are maintained by the Wausau and Marathon County Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Department. There is even a curling barn in Marathon Park. One step into Nine Mile Forest, you forget that a city exists. Maybe that is part of the magic that lies within this Midwest hideaway.
With respecting green space, paying attention to community feedback and growth, and retaining families and students, Wausau is doing it right. Their new project, the Ringle Trail system, (in partnership with the Marathon County Solid Waste Department), will create 10 new miles of trail and include a shared starting point with the Mountain Bay trail. Put this city on your Midwest visit bucket list!
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