The power of urban living: Relying on multifamily housing to transform a former paper-mill town

An overhead view of the Triangle development site in Wisconsin Rapids.

by Dan Rafter

The city of Wisconsin Rapids isn’t unlike other Midwest towns: This Wisconsin city once relied on busy paper mills for jobs. And when the businesses running those mills downsized, the city struggled to reinvent itself.

Today, though, city officials say they have a vision for the future here. Wisconsin Rapids officials have big plans for their city’s waterfront. And these plans center on the future of the Triangle, a 2.1-acre-site that serves as the unofficial entry to the downtown of this Wisconsin city located nearly equidistant from Green Bay and Eau Claire.

And like other Midwest cities that once relied heavily on a single industry, Wisconsin Rapids is turning to downtown multifamily housing to serve as the catalyst for its rejuvenation.

The Triangle site that has city officials excited about the future is adjacent to Wisconsin Rapids’ waterfront and courthouse and overlooks its most important natural resource, the Wisconsin River.

Zach Vruwink, the mayor of Wisconsin Rapids, envisions a bustling mixed-use development for this site, one that will bring much-needed multifamily housing to the city’s downtown. Vruwink knows that until Wisconsin Rapids can offer more downtown housing, it will struggle to attract the mix of retailers, office users and restaurants that the mayor sees one day bringing residents and visitors alike to the community’s central hub.

“This site offers great proximity to the hardest-working river in America,” Vruwink says, referring to the Wisconsin River. “Whichever developer builds on it will also be in the center of the new life that we are seeing in this community. A developer will have the chance to be a big part of the reinvestment that is happening in our downtown today.”

New life for a hard-working city

For a century, Wisconsin Rapids revolved around the area’s biggest employer, Consolidated Papers, Inc., with Vruwink referring to the city as a paper-mill town.

Consolidated Paper, though, left Wisconsin Rapids in 2001, vacating all of the company’s office space here. This space had sat largely vacant until Wood County — the county in which Wisconsin Rapids sits — acquired Consolidated Papers’ headquarters building. The county is now moving into the space, giving it new life and bringing about 200 workers to the space.

That’s good news for Wisconsin Rapids, and has given Vruwink and other city officials hope that even more development can follow, helping to trun the city’s downtown into a bustling area of businesses, shops and restaurants.

Wisconsin Rapids has already developed a master plan for its public riverbank park areas, and has received a matching grant of $675,000 from the state of Wisconsin to begin the first phase of this project. In late 2017, the city expects to break ground on a new waterfront trail and other park amenities.

“The goal is to bring residents to the parkland we have along the riverfront,” Vruwink said. “We want to get people downtown but also keep them downtown for a longer period of time. We think that boosting our public park spaces is a good start to this.”

This, though, is only a start, something that Vruwink recognizes. The city already received a boost last year, when Aspirus Riverview hospital, Wisconsin Rapids’ main medical provider, announced that it will spend $25 million to expand and improve its facilities during the following two years.

Included in these improvements is a new family birthplace center with 10 hotel-like suites.

Vruwink said that he expects this momentum to continue with the Triangle site. A recent study showed that Wisconsin Rapids needs more downtown housing than it currently has. Vruwink said that he hopes redevelopment of the Triangle will provide this much-needed housing.

“That study reaffirmed our own feelings,” the mayor said. “A lack of downtown housing has resulted in a lack of other businesses coming here. We think that a mixed-use development will be a good fit for the Triangle.”

Downtown Wisconsin Rapids does have retail already, mostly smaller restaurants and retailers. But Vruwink said that the city’s downtown retail strip is dated. There is potential, though, with the core businesses of the courthouse, bank and county administrative offices serving as a launching pad for whatever new businesses will one day come to the city center.

“We think that Wisconsin Rapids offers a growing opportunity for developers,” Vruwink said. “We think we are a good option for developers that want to move to a new market, one that is a bit smaller than some of the other larger markets but is ready to grow. We believe that the city’s willingness to reinvest in itself, to put money on the line, represents a great opportunity for developers.”

Vruwink said that he and his fellow city officials are willing to be patient as they wait for the right developer for the Triangle. The city has a deadline of June 1 to receive proposals. As of early April, the city had received one response from a developer. A second developer had expressed interest, too. For Vruwink, it’s only a matter of time before the city finds that one right developer.

“This is a true opportunity for a developer to make a difference in this market,” Vruwink said. “A developer can be a part of a project that I believe will be catalytic in nature, stimulating new development downtown.”

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