Wausau’s new public bird art project has people squawking

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This from the Oct. 28 Wausau Daily Herald, under the headline “Hwy. 52 median bill hits $112,000.”

WAUSAU — A controversial plan to spruce up the city’s west-side entrance with bird sculptures and other improvements will come with $112,000 price tag when it concludes this week.

City leaders approved last month the project to beautify the Highway 52-Highway 51 interchange area by adding 18 decorative metal birds, trees, boulders, LED lighting and sprinklers.”

***

This is the kind of stuff that really gets the feathers flying around here. One Facebook discussion attracted over 250 comments. More than 1,050 people voted in an online newspaper poll, with the bird project getting a 69 percent negative vote, 23 percent giving it a thumbs up and 7 percent undecided. We haven’t had this much fun around here since the school holiday concert brouhaha a few weeks ago.

I’m not going to offer an opinion on the project or its Tax Increment Financing District funding, but I will say that one great quality of public art is that it tends to draw plenty of passion, one way or another. During the heated discussion over the past week, I tossed out that the Eiffel Tower was regarded as hideous by many Parisians back in the day. It was eventually only allowed to be constructed with the understanding that it would be temporary and it could be demolished after 20 years.

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection…of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years…we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”

That’s fairly straightforward criticism, I would say. French author Guy de Maupassant had lunch in the tower’s restaurant every day, it is said, because it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible. But the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, so it should have been gone more than a century ago already. Instead, it remains as one of the world’s most recognizable icons. Of course, I’m not going to tell you that these birds are comparable to the Eiffel Tower, but it’s weird how something unique can tend to grow on people after a while. Like it or not, these birds have now come here to roost. Perhaps it would be just as well to wait a bit before having a bird or flipping too many over it.

http://www.wsaw.com/home/headlines/Wausaus-Bird-Art-Display–229177941.html

http://www.wausaudailyherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2013310280343

http://www.waow.com/story/23824120/2013/10/29/city-spends-100k-on-median-with-birds

Meet the (unfairly maligned) artsists:

http://www.wausaudailyherald.com/article/20131031/WDH0101/310310362/Bird-sculptures-draw-praise-criticism-now-video-?nclick_check=1

JR

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4 Responses to “Wausau’s new public bird art project has people squawking”

  1. Paul Henning Says:

    Fun piece James…Good job! I kinda like the birds. I like the rugged, rusty metal art and the birds are just plain fun. But, the real meat and potatoes of the topic should be the TIF aspect of the project. Since you are somewhat of a local expert on TIF’s, would you please expand on the appropriate nature of the use of TIF funding obtained for this project. Thanks, PH

  2. Without beginning to peel that onion, let me just say that while something like this can certainly be appropriate for TIF, I have a continuing concern with TIF expenditures that do not make a direct, substantial and measurable contribution to economic development. In the big picture, there is room for something like the bird art, but ultimately, all of this stuff needs to be covered by new taxes from added value in the district.

    • Paul Henning Says:

      Thanks, for your reply. Makes sense, but…just when I think I understand…I don’t. Then, how does this TIF concept square with the $400k + they gave Wausau Window & Wall to demo their then existing building on 17th Ave. Not only was there zero economic development created to date, years later, but it seems to me that there was actually an erosion of the “value in the district” created since the building improvements are now gone and not R.E. taxed any longer. What am I not understanding here? Thanks, PH

  3. Paul, in my opinion, you DO understand. I have problems with that kind of project for the reasons that you cite. In my opinion, such a project should only be undertaken if there is something added to the deed allowing the city to collect its outlay upon sale — or perhaps waive it in part of in whole, depending on the value of the development and how the numbers work.

    My understanding of the deal at 17th & West is that the city has a rather weak recovery mechanism and most or all of the city’s outlay could therefore be bargained away fairly easily by the parties to a subsequent sale of the property. In the original proposal that I read about in the newspaper, the city had only made provisions to recover half of its outlay in the event of a sale. That made no sense to me, so I made a few phone calls and I understand that what was ultimately approved allows the city to make full recovery in a best case scenario, (but I don’t believe that it truly requires it, if the property is sold below a certain price point.) Why would the taxpayers want that risk and what is the motivation of the owner to insist on a price that makes it necessary for the city to be paid off?

    The specific property we’re talking about is also part of what is potentially a larger development site. There are Army Reserve and National Guard facilities that either have already or will soon be replaced elsewhere. The county has indicated that it would like to relocate its Highway Dept. Would it have made more sense to “stand ready” to demolish in the event of a development agreement instead of going ahead and doing it for the owner?

    So yes, it concerns me when money is being spent on private property with no development plan in place and potentially inadequate protection for taxpayers — even if or when something might occur in the future. The longer that the site remains vacant, the more would have to happen in the future to put the outcome into the black for taxpayers. This is all part of a very large TIF district and it makes individual activities much more difficult to evaluate, in my view.

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