WAUSAU - Two years ago, Alison Magnuson was a dental assistant but she dreamed of being a store owner. Today, she runs The Local, a hand-crafted goods shop in the heart of Wausau. She'll soon add another store in Weston. While she's been successful largely on her own, only recently hiring a business partner, Magnuson wouldn't have been able to launch her popular shop without some help from the first community to support her.
"The River District has actually had a big impact on our story and how we opened," said Magnuson.
The Wausau River District is a non-profit organization based in downtown Wausau. It has a unique mission: both historic preservation and economic development. That work hasn't gone unnoticed.
On Monday, the River District was one of three organizations across the country awarded the title of Great American Main Street. The award was a long time coming for the River District, too; it was a finalist for the honor the past three years.
The River District has helped add more than 100 new business since 2002 while helping older stores continue to succeed.
"That's what I love about Downtown Wausau. Is that these established business are really able to take these new business under their wing," said Blake Opal-Wahoske, Executive Director of the River District.
Flower shop and home goods store owner Randy Verhasselt agrees. Verhasselt opened his store, Evolutions in Design, over 20 years ago in the River District. He says he's happy to see more stores popping up downtown.
"Safety in numbers, the more of us we can get close to each other the better we can all be," said Verhasselt.
He claims the River District has been instrumental in uniting downtown.
"Since the founding of it, they've kind of been catalyst to pull our downtown together and kind of be like our unified voice," said Verhasselt.
The River District does more than support business, though. Since 2002, the River District advocated for structural changes around town like turning a historic building into apartments and widening walkways for pedestrians. At the same time, they generated an economic impact of anywhere from $8 million to $13.5 million.
The River District has introduced close to 50 community events like Small Business Saturday and Jazz on the River in the past few years alone. Opal-Wahoske says those programs are more targeted than the those put on by the Wausau Chamber of Commerce.
"What makes us a little bit different is we are geographically locked in a 34 square block radius so we really focus on the downtown and the west side," said Opal-Wahoske.
After being recognized on a national stage, Opal-Wahoske wants to do even more for the community.
"It's ongoing, the work never ends" said Opal-Wahoske.
The River District's next big event is Downtown Wausau Dining Week starting April 15th. Participating restaurants will feature a special seafood entree for lunch and dinner in honor of lent.