Wausau River District

2019 Great American Main Street Award Winner


Wausau River District in Wausau, Wisconsin, is one of three winners of the 2019 Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA), which recognizes communities for their excellence in comprehensive preservation-based commercial district revitalization. Selected by a national jury of community development professionals and leaders in the fields of economic development and historic preservation, Wausau River District is being recognized for becoming an impressive arts and culture destination with engaging public spaces and a booming local economy.

At a Glance

Main Street America Program: Wausau River District
Coordinating Program: Main Street Wisconsin/Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation
Year Organization Founded: 2002
Population: 39,114
Public and Private Reinvestment: $119,662,392*
Net New Jobs Created: 1,040*

*Since Main Street America program began

“Wausau River District has set an example for communities across the country that are looking to cultivate sustainable, long-term revitalization in their downtown,” said National Main Street Center CEO and President Patrice Frey. “They have shown what’s possible if you invest in public spaces, expand partnerships and collaborations, diversify funding sources, and launch programs that respond to the needs of your community.”

Before Wausau River District formed in 2002, this north central Wisconsin downtown faced a decade of blight and competition from big box stores, resulting in a constant flight of local businesses. Between 2002 and 2010, Wausau River District advocated for new developments and redesigned wider and more walkable streets. These efforts, combined with bringing in nearly $120 million in public and private investment, have sparked a true transformation. Downtown Wausau’s vacancy rate has dropped from 13 percent to 3 percent since 2002, and residential development has swelled.

Left: Wausau’s annual Artrageous Weekend is an art extravaganza offering fun for all ages. Credit: Daily Herald Media  Right: Wausau’s Chalkfest boasts a football field worth of chalk paintings throughout downtown. The event regularly sets attendance records and draws thousands of people to downtown to watch artists transform the sidewalks. Credit: Elizabeth Field

“Wausau River District has consistently been a leader in district revitalization,” said Errin Welty, Interim Wisconsin Main Street Program Coordinator and Downtown Development Account Manager for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. “The strong engagement from the property owner and business community, together with the strong relationship with municipal government, have fostered an atmosphere of innovation and creativity. While the River District has always been an employment hub and shopping destination, it is also increasingly attracting overnight visitors and permanent residents that appreciate the district’s ample dining, nightlife, and recreation amenities.”

Located along the Wisconsin River, Wausau has focused on developing unique public spaces and special events that showcase the character and natural beauty of their downtown. Wausau River District implemented a series of placemaking strategies to jumpstart these efforts, including placing painted pianos, murals, public art displays, and an umbrella art installation downtown. Wausau River District also hosts 100 special events each year in downtown, ranging from concerts to art fairs, drawing over 72,000 visitors annually. The crown jewel of Wausau is the 400 Block, a centrally-located park completed in 2011 with a covered stage that hosts dozens of events annually, as well as a skating rink, snow slide and splash pad.

Howell-blog-post-graphic-2-richard-lim-photography.pngLeft: Wausau’s Marketplace Thursdays takes place on the 400 Block every Thursday from June to September. The event includes a mix of local food, art, craft vendors, food trucks, and a yoga class. Credit: Daily Herald Media  Right: The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in held on the 400 Block every August. Credit: Daily Herald Media

“I’m beyond proud of our community’s focus on improving the quality of life for our residents, through the creation of public spaces, community events, expansion of walking/biking trails and the vast amount of cultural and historical offerings that make our downtown so vibrant any time of the year,” said Blake Opal-Wahoske, Executive Director of Wausau River District.

Wausau River District’s efforts have spurred significant economic growth. In the past four years, they have introduced 47 new programs, events, and services with a total estimated economic impact that ranges from $8 to $13.5 million. Their downtown has generated more than 1,000 new jobs and 104 new businesses since 2002. Wausau has also focused on generating more locally-owned small businesses. Their Entrepreneurial and Education Center offers boot camps, trainings, classes, and mentorship opportunities to budding small business owners to encourage development.
Explore the other 2019 Great American Main Street Award winners: Alberta Main Street and Wheeling Heritage.