To the visitor driving across the Wisconsin River into this pleasant, lOng-established city of tall shade trees and old homes with large lawns, it appears a peaceful enough place.

Settled in the late 19th century largely by Polish, Scandinavian, and German immigrants who brought a strong work ethic with them, Stevens Point (pop. 25,000 ) is now a mix of blue- and white-collar workers. The headquarters of Sentry Insurance is here. So is a major branch of the University of Wisconsin. The city is also the home of a busy paper mill and the center of a potato-farming area that over the years has become a major producer of the nation's supply of French fries.

But if this city looks serene and without problems to passersby these days, it is only so in the aftermath of one of liveliest community debates in its history.

Few here can remember getting quite so worked up over a local issue since Stevens Pointers spent the decade of the 1950s deciding whether or not to fluoridate the water supply (they eventually did). And most will tell you that it didn't spark nearly as much discussion.

This timethe issue was billed as nothing less than the survival of Stevens Point.

After all, residents were reminded, hadn't they seen the downtown cores of dozens of other cities turn into ghost towns once developers put up shopping malls in outlying cornfields?

Would-be suburban developers had been hovering around the city for years with various plans for outlying malls. For a variety of reasons, including the damage a new outlying sewer system might do to the city's water supply, city -leaders had managed thus far to stave them off.

Yet many residents, business leaders, and Stevens Poant Mayor Mike Haberman, had long been convinced that fending off malls was not enough.

They felt that a major revitalization of their downtown, including a rerouting of Highway 10 - which brought noisy trucks right though the heart of the Main Street shopping area - was essential if the city was to stay in business.

It had been estimated that as much as $30 million a year was being spent by Stevens Pointers in other cities and other shopping malls.

So the mayor invited 150 civic leaders to two breakfast meetings on the university campus in 1979 to hash over priorities and try to set a new course for the community. Ideas flowed, and the Downtown Action Committee (DAC) was formed to draft a specific plan of action. Using funds raised from the business community, the DAC solicited a -number of studies and plans - from improving the city's riverfront landscape and public square (where farmers daily sell vegetables and flowers), to tallying the number of historic downtown structures worth saving, to shifting Highway 10 traffic around the city.

The mayor and the DAC began working with Thomas Barrett of Developmant Spectrum Inc., a Chicago-area development firm, on plans to develop an enclosed shopping mall of 50 to 60 stores in the heart of downtown Stevens Point. Mr. Barrett had worked on the plans for both the Wisconsin Rapids and Green Bay downtown malls.

Altogether, the Stevens Point downtown revitalization was to be a $50 million project tackled over a 10-year period. It would rely on financing frmm a variety of sources, including a hoped-for $5 million federal Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG).

''This much development in otyh mwoop is very unusual,'' confirms P. David Sowell, UDAG senior development director. ''This is really a very exciting project.''

Up to that point, DAC efforts to lay the groundwork for renovating the center of towf were proceeding fairly quietly. But, aware that widespread community support was essential to the success of this ambitious plan, the mayor and DAC leaders decided to put the issue up to a voter referendum on May 25, 1982.

Voters were assured that none of thIir own tax dollars would be involved in this ''once-in-a-lifetime'' opportunity to say ''yes'' to downtown. All that was needed was voter permission for the city to issue up to $12.2 million in bonds that would eventually be paid back through the increased tax value of the improved downtown property. The improvements were expected to increase the city's tax base by $28 million.

But if the proposal - a classic cne, facing thousands of other cities these days - sounded simple, it was not.

Many Stevens Pointers remained convinced that sooner or later the taxpayer would foot the bill. He would pay, they said, not only if the project failed, but also indirectly through higher prices charged by mall retailers who would be forced to pass their costs along to consumers.

The number of opponents writing letters to the Stevens Point Journal began to grow. Some saw the downtown plan as a plot to ''bilk'' citizens of their paychecks. One resident whose property taxes had gone from $73 in 1952 to a current high of more than $1,000 said he was convinced that a ''yes'' vote was a vote for higher taxes. Another insisted the taxpayer would be ''left holding the bag and paying through the nose.'' And a man who had waited a long time for police to respond to a nonemergency call questioned how a city which obviously didn't have enough money to keep city services going could embark on such a risky and costly plan. The changes, he said, would be largely superficial.

Opponents joined forces in a group organized in April and known as the Sensible Action Committee (SAC). Some residents said they saw the bid for change as a direct blow to the city's Polish heritage. Some of Stevens Point's older shops have Polish murals painted on the sides.

And one opponent, a veteran of the state's National Guard, even predicted that by luring residents from so many corners of town, the new mall would become a prime target for a Soviet bomb.

The city's Common Council was split down the middle on the issue, with four members openly opposed. ''One reason for holding the referendum was to firm up support within the Founcil itself,'' says Mayor Haberman.

Much of the formal opposition to the plan came from merchants on Main Street. The street was slated for renovation under t(e plan, but would not be part of the mall project directly. Many were concerned whether their businesses would survive the added mall competition and the rerouting of traffic.

Spreading the proposed plan out on a doughboard in the rear of his bakery, Joseph Havlovick, owner of Point Bakery, tries to show a visitor precisely how cut off from foot and car traffic his Main Street store will be under the new plan.

''They're turning Main Street into an alley,'' he insists. ''It's going to hurt me especially, but it will hurt everyone on Main Street. I don't believe the mall is going to succeed, and so I don't think downtown is going to succeed. . . . Times have changed. People have become very cautious with money. We have as many customers a3 ever, but sales are down a dollar a person.''

Mr. Havlovick argues that malls are not for serious shoppers, but for those who want to be ''entertained'' and have plenty of time. He put one of his shops in a downtown mall hn a nearby city. The mall is not doing well, and customers in his shop there often bought only one or two doughnuts at a visit, he says.

But proponents of the downtown mall and core revitalization countered that if citizens voted ''no'' in the referendum, it would only be a matter of time until a suburban developer built an outlying mall. Then, they argued, the city's downtown would really feel the adverse impact. No fewer than four studies focused on the retail area concluded that the city cOuld support no more than one mall. Backers of the downtown mall reasoned that the combination of a developer willing to invest $14 million of his money in the downtown project, the availability of bond financing, and the possible UDAG grant created a possibility that probably could never be put before voters again.

By this time proponents of the plan were nothing if not well organized. They had the League of Women Voters, the presidents of the city's two banks, and numerous other business, labor, and university leaders in their camp. A few businesses, such as Sentry Insurance, remained carefully in the background, however, lest their efforts on the project's behalf trigger a negative reaction.

Using ''Keep Stevens Point a Winner'' as the campaign theme, the lobbying effort conducted by a DAC offshoot called ''People for Downtown,'' handed out brochures and large blue-and-white buttons that read, ''Vote 'Yes' for Downtown.'' They printed up extra copies of all the planning and feasibility studies for anyone who wanted to take the time to read them.

Many Stevens Pointers put up yard signs to let neighbors know which side they were on. One supporter who had spelled out his reasons in a letter to the newspaper wrote a second letter in defense of his First Amendment rights. His wife, he complained, had been unfairly chastised by her co-workers after his letter appeared.

Proponents found themselves with almost more volunteers than they could use. A group of local senior citizens hand-addressed some 10,000 letters to town residents a few days before the vote. The Wisconsin Trade Union Council offered to make some of its pension money available at less than the market rate for construction costs. College students distributed several thousand brochures from house to house. And when one alderman came up with the idea of a paper placemat for area restaurants that lightheartedly quizzed diners n the specifics of he plan; volunteers distributed 75,000 of them. One eatery which used them had some customers who vowed never to return because of it. But only McDonald's flatly refused the placemats on grounds they were ''too political.''

''We weren't asking anyone to be for it - we just wanted them to use the placemats,'' says George Seyfarth, DAC chairman and a university administrator who has volunteered thousands of hours to the project and the referendum effort.

Along with the mayor, Mr. Seyfarth put the case for a ''yes'' vote before some 40 organizations in the course of the campaign.''It got to be the George and Mike show,'' says Seyfarth.

Still, a poll conducted by a local radio station four weeks before the referendum showed the opposition leading by a 60-40 ratio. As the day of the vote drew close, proponents gradually picked up support so that the ratio was closer to 50-50.

Stevens Point is a fiscally conservative city (Mayor Haberman insists it is ''progressive, though not liberal''), which has not had a strong history either of holding referendums or of saying ''yes'' to them if they might lead to new taxes. A major revitalization of the city's schools, for instance, was skillfully handled without ever putting the -issue to a vote. And Stevens Point's new hockey rink is in business only because it was paid for by a new city hotel and motel tax. When a property-tax hike was rumored a few years ago, the objections were so strong that city leaders promptly withdrew the proposal.

''It's always a good deal easier to generate a 'no' vote and to keep the status quo,'' observes Edwin Karlen, president of the Citizens National Bank and a Stevens Point homeowner. ''It takes very positive movement to generate a 'yes' vote.''

Yet Mayor aberman was convinced that, if proponents hadn't put the issue to a vote, opponents would have. And he credits the opposition with helping to clarify the issue for many voters.

''Once there are two sides to a story, people listen,'' he says. ''We were kind of like one hand clapping for a long time. We weren't getting very far in our information campaign. The opposition helped us get the story across.''

''This issue has really done something for the community,'' agrees Kay Wohlbier, a mother of four here and an enthusiastic supporter of the downtown plan. ''It got everybody stirred up. Nobody was apathetic.''

On the eve of the election both sides ran full-page aLs in the local paper in a last-minute effort to convince those who were still wavering. SAC's ad, which highlighted in large, bold type such words as ''coercion,'' ''retribution,'' and ''intimidation'' (''Out of town experts telling us what is rigpt for our city'') , urged saving the city's Polish heritage by a ''no'' vote. People for Downtown's ad featured a photo of a small boy and girl, holding hands and looking down a vacant city shopping street. ''What kind of downtown Stevens Point will we leave for them to enjoy?'' it asked, adding that the plan was the ''one chance to keep our dollars, our jobs, our tax base, our business center in Stevens Point.''

When finally tallied late last month, the vote - including all the absentee ballots filed by university students whose classes had already been dismissed - was nearly 2 to 1 in favor of the downtown revitalization plan.

''You could certainly see the trend working in that direction, but I was surprised by the margin of it - especially since you can't guarantee that it won't ever affect taxes,'' says George Rogers, editor of the Stevens Point Journal, which had editorially endorsed the downtown plan.

The DAC had scheduled a community get-together at the Whiting Motor Hotel to talk over the returns regardless of their outcome. The chatter was constant. Mr. Seyfarth recalls that one resident sat down 4o play the piano, but ''nobody paid any attention to him - everybody was so busy talking.'' By 1 a.m., there were still dozens of people engrossed in deep conversation.But for all the work that led up to the vote here, proponents are taking their win quietly.

They know the vote was only the first step on a long road.

As editor Rogers says, ''They're not home free yet. . . . And some people will be watching for every misstep along the way.''

One challenge ahead will be to find a thir' anchor for the downtown mall. Both Shopko and J. C. Penney, which will build a new store for the occasion, have agreed to be anchors.

And any forward motion now depends in large part on whether or not the city wins a UDAG grant that will enable it to go ahead with the public works portion of the project.

''I think we're still in the leadership role, but there are some financial hurdles ahead,'' says Mayor Haberman. ''We need more money from the private sector, and if we don't get the UDAG grant, we're done.''

Also, the proponents see their main job of the moment as trying to heal the divisions within the community and forge a new coalition.

Seyfarth set forth the morning after the election to visit with some of the opponents on Main Street.

''One cussed me out - I suppose maybe it was a little soon to talk to him,'' he says.

Undaunted, he is now trying to persuade five opponents to serve on a seven-member Main Street Council, a DAC offshoot aimed at sprucing up the city's main shopping street.

''This will be the toughest part of the project, but we have to pull things back together,'' he says. ''One of the main reasons downtown had been deteriorating in the first place was that nobody ever talked to each other.''

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