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Neal: What Wausau can do in wake of business closings (column)

City Council member's op-ed column oversimplified the issue

3:45 PM, Feb. 10, 2014  |  Comments
FILE - This Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 file photo shows a J.C. Penney store in a Pembroke Pines, Fla., shopping center. As a court ruling looms, J.C. Penney Co. is scaling back its partnership with Martha Stewart. The department store chain will no longer be selling certain home and bath products designed by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., the two companies said Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. A judge has been expected to rule in a court battle between Penney and Macy's over whether Macy's has an exclusive right to sell some of her products. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter, File) ORG XMIT: NY117
FILE - This Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 file photo shows a J.C. Penney store in a Pembroke Pines, Fla., shopping center. As a court ruling looms, J.C. Penney Co. is scaling back its partnership with Martha Stewart. The department store chain will no longer be selling certain home and bath products designed by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., the two companies said Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. A judge has been expected to rule in a court battle between Penney and Macy's over whether Macy's has an exclusive right to sell some of her products. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter, File) ORG XMIT: NY117
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A recent Daily Herald Media guest column by Wausau City Council member Keene Winters, headlined "The real reason JC Penney left Wausau," has spurred lots of chatter in our community. Predictably, some agree entirely with Winters' analysis and others take exception.

As a candidate for City Council's District 4 seat, which is being vacated by the retirement of Jim Brezinski, I'd like to join the discussion. This sort of topic will surely arise between now and the April 1 election.

I agree with many of Winters' assessments about Wausau's economy and how demographics impact business investment. But the "real reason" noted in the column's headline and the conclusion that stores leave because of "sales and demographics" and is "rooted in years worth of policy mistakes by City Hall" oversimplify what's behind the loss of JC Penney and other businesses.

I wonder if JC Penney was near the end of its lease - a time when struggling companies look at long-term plans and make keep-or-close decisions. Our state is losing five JC Penney stores, nearly one-sixth of their national closings. Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa will lose one each, and two in Illinois. Are those states more fiscally attractive? Maybe our state's leaders should not get off scot-free as we look for that "real reason" behind trends; nor should Madison be our convenient scapegoat.

Local demographic realities - lack of a four-year college; an aging population; youth flight; lower than average income; higher unemployment rate; growth projections - may keep some franchises, chains and companies away. But Winters' cause-and-effect conclusion omits serious events that have hit us hard, including the Great Recession beginning in 2008, which slammed our manufacturing base, and the paper industry's precipitous decline.

When a large part of your industrial base takes a hit, your demographics will too. We are in a recovery now, but it will take time. Still, these remain tough times, and other communities are dealing with the same challenges. We'd do well to work hard to overshadow our competitors on various fronts.

As Winters notes, there are things within our power to change. Is our property tax rate too high or is it competitive? I've heard differing opinions; we have to ensure we compare apples to apples, and we need to communicate a clear "cost of business" and "value added" story.

We also need to consider other factors that make us attractive or unattractive. As a longtime marketing professional, I know people base buying decisions (and businesses base location decisions) on a mix of fiscal and non-fiscal considerations. Finance is balanced against quality of life. Taxes and other business costs are weighed against culture, recreation, environment and education. One thing every prospective business wants to see is a city government that works well together.

I agree with Winters that creative zoning can spur development, and we need to explore other incentives and outreach efforts. We must actively address blight, along with the influx of hard drugs and related crime.

Let's find ways to synergize with neighboring communities to avoid needless waste in delivery of services. And, we should not falter when it comes to investing in and promoting fiscally responsible efforts related to beautification, culture and recreation. For example, I participated recently in an exciting, eye-opening brainstorming session for a plan to dramatically transform our downtown on the west side of the river. A dynamic concept is taking form; we should pursue and promote it.

Wausau is not, and should never be, a gray town. Working with a solid vision, we can make it an even greater town for business, living, working and raising a family.

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