Wausau Center Celebrates 30th Anniversary

For 30 years, Wausau Center has been a valuable presence in the city, drawing shoppers from around the region to Northcentral Wisconsin's largest shopping mall.

But the mall's history dates back further than August 1983.

"In the late 70s city and community leaders started to recognize downtown was deteriorating a bit," said Wausau Center general manager Megan Lawrence. "There were a lot of vacant properties and they wanted to do something to redevelop downtown and revitalize it."

"This was a big issue for the city of Wausau," Marathon County historian Gary Gisselman said. "This was a major part of downtown Wausau, that's going to be literally reconstructed, a lot of Wausau history would go away, replaced by the Wausau Center Mall so it was a big issue and involved a lot of tax payers' money."

The location meant the demolition of eight city blocks but then-Mayor John Kannenberg was adament that the mall be built downtown rather than on the outskirts of the city.

"A referendum passed in April of 1979 with 80% of eligible voters in Wausau casting a vote," Lawrence said, "and it passed with 62%."
As one of the businesses in the demolition zone, Sears relocated to the corner of 5th and Washington with plans to add the new store to the mall's anchors.

The original store was down by kind of where the food court is now." Sears store manager Dean Whipple explained. "Then 31 years ago they opened up the new Sears store and from what I understand, is, when they opened that up, shortly after that, a year later is when the mall built on."

"In 1980, the redevelopment work began," Lawrence said. "Buildings started being demolished and we were open on August 3rd, 1983."

Tens of thousands packed into Wausau Center as part of the initial opening day celebration and though the mall doesn't see crowds quite as large on a typical day, it still plays a vital role in the downtown economy as the only mall within a 90 mile radius.

"We provide over 700 jobs in this community," Lawrence said. "A significant volume of retail sales are still being generated and we're still very successful."

It's the reason why Sears has remained a tenant throughout Wausau Center's existance.

"The mall and Sears have been great business partners." Whipple said. "We bring traffic into the mall as the mall brings traffic into our store so it's been a great, great working relationship for both of us."

On paper, today's mall looks similar to what opened 30 years ago. There are three large anchors, about 65 stores and hundreds of parking spaces. But as businesses come and go, retailers have to keep up. In 2006, owner CBL Property Associates gave the mall a 21st century facelift.

Though supportive ownership helps, Lawrence knows it's the people who have kept the mall going for three decades.

"Thanks to our shoppers and the community who've supported us for so many years," Lawrence said. "We would not be successful without them."

Wausau Center will celebrate its 30th anniversary Friday at noon with Mayor Jim Tipple issuing a proclamation to declare "Wausau Center Mall Day." The event is free and open to the public.

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