Business is booming in Wausau; or is it?
A look at employment, business creation and a general state of business in the Wausau area
Something just occurred to me the other day: For the first time since before the pandemic, there are more businesses opening than I can keep track of.
A comment I started getting at City Pages during the pandemic was that people missed the Buzz column and wondered why there weren’t many of them anymore. The answer was simple: There weren’t new businesses to write about.
Obviously no one was going to be opening businesses during a lockdown; but even afterwards, there just weren’t many popping up. Slowly but surely, that’s changed.
This year things seem to be back in full swing. A list of new businesses open this year (or soon to open) brings the point home: Westsider Diner and Lounge, Rodzina, Tres Hermanos’ new taqueria, Grand View Market, Velveteen Plum, Blissful Bites and Brunch, Dijon BBQ, Dripped Up Central, Nortenita, Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, Mortchee’s, Honest J’s, Photographic Art by Dennis, Magnolia Soap and Bath Co., Caked It, LaShine Beauty, Sugar N Spice and Yummy Deli.
I’m sure I’m missing a few. There’s also talk of Chipotle coming to Rib Mountain.
In a Substack note I replied to a reader that there have been no big box stores announced for the Wausau area, but I forgot about one: There’s apparently a new sporting goods store planned for the old Gordman’s spot. In that same block of stores, Bed, Bath and Beyond announced recently they were closing up shop.
What are we to make of this? On the one hand, the return of small business creation is good to see and a positive sign. But what of bigger businesses? Where are the large expansions? Little has been heard of since the pandemic.
Larger businesses in the area were already struggling with employees. One business owner told me they had the business available to significantly expand; instead, they were downsizing their business to fit the available workforce. Others told me they were being more lenient with hiring practices and workplace practices — one told me they no longer fire someone after a no-show.
According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, unemployment in Wausau was 2% in April, the latest month for which data is available. That’s much lower than the state’s 2.4%, which is already quite low. 1
BLS’s stats show a shrinking labor force in Wausau, one that sometimes numbered in the 75,000-plus range, to now hovering into the 73,000-74,000 range.
Is it possible more people are deciding to create their own businesses? That’s true of at least a few people around the Wausau area, as we’ve seen from the number of new businesses popping up. And we only counted people starting public-facing businesses. Many more businesses might be online only, and are much harder to count. (ie someone starts a dropshipping store or sells candles on Etsy, etc.)
One idea I had was to look up the number of new limited liability corporations created. While LLCs are more of a proxy than a hard stat (people can form LLCs for a number of reasons, including for real estate holdings, which wouldn’t necessarily count as the kind of business we’re interested in for the purpose of this story), changes in numbers ought to give us a clue toward our hypothesis.
I know this is possible because The Business News publishes newly created LLCs in its paper (not online, unfortunately). And yet, using the Department of Financial Institutions’s LLC lookup website, I can’t figure out a way to search by date and geography. Though you can specify a date range, it doesn’t appear there is a way to search without entering a search word.
What else? How about net new construction? In 2022, Wausau saw $73 million in net new construction, an increase of 2.2%. That’s down a bit from 2021 with $93.5 million or a 2.8% increase. And $101 million in 2020 (what?) a 3.3% increase.
It was $115 million in 2019, a 4% increase, BTW. But a paltry $56 million in 2018. ($63 million or 2.4% in 2017 and $32 million and 1.6% in 2016.)
A challenge (series?)
Awhile back I tried to put together a quarterly dashboard. It didn’t really work out the way I’d hoped. One of the main reasons: Getting timely data for the Wausau area is challenging. Wausau is small enough that it flies under the radar of many data collecting organizations that focus on larger metros.
My next focus is going to be figuring out how to track new LLC creation. A very analogue way to do it would be to go to the library and pick up old copies of The Business News, but I’d prefer to find a way to do it on my own.
It occurred to me that I might need to start generating data myself. I’m interested in the increasing cost of rent, and how it will change as the city meets its goal of adding so much housing downtown. Proponents argue it will bring down rents, but does rent ever really go down? Or could the rate of growth possibly slow?
It started out as a curiosity — now it’s a mission to put hard data to my initial impression that business has been booming lately. Or maybe it will challenge that initial impression. That’s even more valuable.
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