Milwaukee Business Groups Try to Find Silver Lining in Smaller DNC
Steve Baas, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said the convention has given the city a huge silver lining: visibility and credibility to host more big, national and international events in the future. "We proved that we could compete and win. The game got canceled, but we put ourselves in that position,” Baas said.

Despite the DNC being virtually canceled, the city should consider landing the event a feather in its cap.

When the Democratic National Committee announced Wednesday that Joe Biden and other key speakers would no longer be traveling to Milwaukee this month due to the coronavirus pandemic, it hardly came as a shock.

“For a while, this had been the incredible shrinking convention,” said Steve Baas, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

Warning signs came early in April when the national Democratic Party announced the convention would move from the week of July 13 to the week of August 17.

Another blow came in June, when it was announced the convention would no longer take place at the Milwaukee Bucks’ Fiserv Forum and it would instead take place primarily online with some local events and a speech from Biden at the nearby Wisconsin Center. 

So when the DNC pulled the plug on the remaining major events in Milwaukee, perhaps it was to be expected due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic that has killed nearly 1,000 in Wisconsin and infected nearly 60,000, while killing over 160,000 nationwide and infecting nearly five million Americans.

“Everyone was kind of prepared for a large convention, a small convention, (or) no convention and understanding that was going to be a potential,” said Nick Johnson, regional director of operations at hotel management and investment company First Hospitality and former president of the Greater Milwaukee Hotel and Lodging Association.

Still, the announcement didn’t come as any less of a gut-punch to hotels, restaurants, bars, and transit companies in Milwaukee and the greater southeastern Wisconsin region. It was initially estimated the DNC would draw 50,000 people to the area and result in $200 million in economic activity, but now it’s anything but clear what the impact — if any — will be.

“This is kind of the icing on top of a very bad cake,” Baas said. “It just piles on.”

The hospitality industry, one of the sectors most adversely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, was set to get a huge boost from the event. Room bookings for the DNC stretched from Green Bay to northern Illinois, Johnson said.

Not all is lost, though. “A handful of hotels” — albeit, contained to downtown Milwaukee rather than hundreds of locations spanning hundreds of miles and dozens of cities — are still getting new reservations, Johnson said. 

“I still believe that this is going to be a phenomenal opportunity for Milwaukee,” Johnson said.

There have already been rumblings from local leaders and businesspeople that Milwaukee should make a play for a do-over 2024 convention, assuming there’s not another calamity to deal with. Baas said it’s “premature” to talk about Milwaukee landing the convention again because by then, Wisconsin may not be the most important state to win the presidential election like it is now.

However, Baas said the convention has given the city a huge silver lining: visibility and credibility to host more big, national and international events in the future.

“We proved that we could compete and win. The game got canceled, but we put ourselves in that position,” Baas said.