Business of the Week: Wausau River District

Wausau Pilot & Review

Editor’s note: Business of the Week is a sponsored feature that shares the stories of locally-owned and operated businesses in the Wausau area, highlighting the products and services they offer and the ways they contribute to the metro area’s unique flavor. Learn how to feature your business by emailing [email protected].

This week’s featured organization is Wausau River District, an approved Main Street program that aims to promote and facilitate economic vitality and historic preservation of downtown Wausau for the entire community’s benefit. Established in 2002 as Main Street Wausau, this organization has evolved over the years to fit the needs of downtown as well as city partners and stakeholders. From sharing staff with Wausau Area Events to becoming an approved Main Street program, Wausau River District continues to adapt with new ideas and programming that enhances the local economy and downtown experience for residents and visitors alike. In 2019, the organization was awarded the Great American Main Street Award from Main Street America and a Small Business of the Year Award from the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce. They have also won 23 Wisconsin Main Street Awards in 20 years, most recently for their popular Dining on the Street event series that brings people to restaurants in the downtown area, some in conjunction with Concerts on the Square. Blake Opal-Wahoske, as Executive Director, spearheads the organization with help from assistant Director Alyson Leahy. Board President Joseph Mella is also a guiding force in the organization, which has contributed enormously to the success of Wausau’s thriving downtown. Here, Blake discusses the organization, who they serve, the events they have planned and how to learn more with the summer event season now fully in gear.

Why is the River District and the downtown area so central to a strong community?

The heart of a city is its downtown! A healthy downtown corridor creates a ripple effect throughout the entire community. “Downtown is important because its’ the heart and soul of any community. If you don’t have a healthy downtown, you don’t have a healthy town.” Ed McMahon, Chair of the National Main Street Center Board of Directors.

What are the boundaries of the Wausau River District?

The Wisconsin River ties together the district.

  • River West, Elm Street to the north, 3rd Avenue to the west, and Stewart Avenue to the south.
  • Downtown, Grant Street to the north, 6th Street on the East, and Washington Street to the south.

Which areas of the community does the organization focus on?

Being a Main Street program, we are often the intersection between the residents, visitors, small business owners, local government, nonprofits, and corporate sponsors. Our areas of focus include:

  • Placemaking – Create and enhance a memorable sense of place through advocacy, projects, and programs within the River District.
  • Business Development – ​​Undertake business retention, recruitment, retail events, and marketing efforts in the River District.
  • Residential Development – Advocate for residential development within walking or biking distance to the River District.

Tell us about the partnership between your organization and Wausau Events. Do you work together frequently?

While WRD and Wausau Events shared an Executive Director at one point, the organizations split in 2006 to create an organization whose sole focus was the downtown. Still sharing an office, Wausau Events takes on larger-scale events and programming outside the immediate downtown area, while WRD focuses only on downtown Wausau. There is some overlap, but we love to partner when possible! The Wausau area is fortunate to have multiple organizations providing year-round community events.

What about the relationships between your organization and local businesses? How do you work together to ensure each other’s success?

WRD is a grassroots organization that includes paid staff, volunteer-led committees, business owners, and board members – feedback from all of these areas is integral to our work. We host regular business roundtables and trainings and connect small businesses to local funding sources and other resources. We also implement three signature retail events annually and a restaurant event series. A vibrant downtown is economically thriving.

Tell us about the events you have planned for this year and what you’re most excited about. What do you want people to experience?

Our 2022 lineup is an exciting mix of classic favorites and new events. Dining on the Street is back with a revamped edition of Summer Saturday Nights, featuring smaller musical acts with local flavor. Downtown Employee Appreciation Week and 715 Day are coming up in July, and the Exhibitour Art and Wine Walk will wrap up the summer. Holiday Open House weekend kicks off the holiday shopping season in November, so take a stroll through our retail businesses. Finally, we’ll spotlight Small Business Saturday again, bringing back Photos with Santa and adding an Ale Trail event.

Where do you see Wausau’s River District in 5 years?

We hope to see more housing in the downtown area in the next five years to encourage a thriving daytime and nighttime economy.

What accomplishments have been achieved in the Wausau River District over the last 20 years?

Over the last 20 years, the Wausau River District has seen:

  • 158 Net New Businesses
  • 1,114 Net New Jobs
  • $100.3 Million in Private Investment
  • $31.2 million in Public Investment
  • The addition of 34 Housing Units
  • 308 Building units rehabbed

The downtown corridor is currently at a 3% commercial vacancy rate, which means business owners continue to see downtown Wausau as a great place to do business.

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