Can Milwaukee handle the DNC?

City prepares for national spotlight

Host committee chair Alex Lasry, DNC chairman Tom Perez, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, along with other city and party leaders, celebrate after announcing that Milwaukee will host the 2020 Democratic National Convention. 

Last updated on June 18th, 2019 at 11:53 am

A group of city leaders and local politicians on March 11 occupied the atrium of Fiserv Forum, raising cups of beer in a ceremonial – and “Milwaukee-esque” – toast to a victory that many didn’t see coming. At the front of that group stood Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who earlier had announced he had selected Milwaukee’s bid to host the party’s upcoming national convention in 2020.

Now, about one month later, the city and state are preparing to take center stage for when more than 50,000 politicians, delegates, lobbyists, dignitaries and members of the national and international media descend upon Milwaukee from July 13 to 16, 2020.

Over the past year, the local bid committee had worked hard at convincing Perez that Milwaukee – a small-market city once defined by its place along America’s Rust Belt – could take on an event historically hosted by top-tier metros.

But after impressing party officials during two site visits and hitting all the marks on their list of requirements (including quotas for available hotel rooms and event venues), Milwaukee had won him over and in doing so, could give the Democrats a better shot at winning a crucial swing state and taking back the White House.

With that influx projected to exceed $200 million, the state and region’s hospitality industry is expecting, and preparing, to cash in on a mammoth opportunity.

“To have 50,000 visitors over that four-day period, that’s going to really bring an influx of dollars to our community,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “It’s really about creating an economic opportunity… and to make sure that the fruits of the labor are spread throughout this entire community.”

Hotel rooms in cities as far away as Green Bay and in Lake County, Illinois have been blocked; Milwaukee’s Airbnb hosts are raising rates; construction timelines for hotel and infrastructure projects have been pushed up; and area restaurants are being trained on how to serve mass amounts of diners.

Now that Milwaukee has won the bid, local organizers have turned their attention to what needs to be done in order to put on an event of this scale and significance. Those efforts will be led by a host committee, formally known as The Good Land Committee Inc., which has not officially been staffed yet, said Milwaukee Bucks senior vice president Alex Lasry, who will serve as chair of that committee. Lasry anticipates hiring 10 to 20 staff members, with an executive director as the most immediate hire, he said.

Lasry, who also headed the local bid committee for the DNC, has been and will continue to be heavily involved in fundraising efforts for the convention. Since no state or city taxpayer dollars will be used, that’s a major item on the host committee’s to-do list. Before Milwaukee was selected as host city, $11 million in local donations had already been secured, but with a $70 million total fundraising goal, the committee will now rely on both local and national donors to close that funding gap, Lasry said.

“We’re seeing a renewed interest locally from corporations and individuals who want to be involved in the biggest (event) that has ever been in Milwaukee,” Lasry said. “We’re also seeing nationals coming in to talk to us because they’re very interested in playing a big part in an event this special.”

Lasry did not disclose the names of those donors. However, the bid committee’s June 2018 bid proposal, recently obtained by BizTimes from the City of Milwaukee, includes a list of “corporations and other entities” that will make financial contributions to the host committee while serving as its members and on its finance committee. That list includes local business leaders Andy Nunemaker of Dynamis Software Corp., Hannah Rosenthal of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Cory Nettles of Generation Growth Capital Inc., Ted Kellner of TM Partners, Omar Shaik of SURG Restaurant Group LLC, JoAnne Anton of Herb Kohl Philanthropies and local philanthropist Marianne Lubar. Bucks owners Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan, Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio and Chicago
Bulls CEO Michael Reinsdorf are also listed.

The document additionally contains letters of vocal support from Todd Teske of Briggs & Stratton, Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Gavin Hattersley of MillerCoors LLC, David Jacobson of BMO Financial Group and John Donofrio of Johnson Controls International plc.

“The response I’ve gotten from the business community is that this is not a partisan affair, this is a civic affair… and they understand you invest in a community in order to get visitors,” Barrett said.

The committee has also continued to recruit and register local, diverse businesses for its Supplier Diversity Initiative, an effort led by local DNC activists Jason Rae and Martha Love, Lasry said.

Those businesses will be included in a directory provided to convention organizers as they start to plan the upwards of 1,500 related events set to take place at venues throughout the city.

“They’re going to need any type of vendor to make sure that they’re able to put on their events,” Lasry said. “…We want to make sure the contracted businesses are as local and as diverse as possible.”

The initiative so far has held five informational meetings, with more planned for the next few months, Lasry said.

In addition to contractors, 12,000 volunteers will be recruited from across the state to serve during the convention as local resources for attendees and to help the event go off without a hitch, Lasry said.

The committee is currently using digital and social media platforms to spark public interest and direct potential volunteers to sign up on its website.

As far as security and transportation, Lasry said the local host committee plans to work closely with the DNC’s convention committee and state, city and county entities to “figure out how we make sure that this event allows people to move around freely, but also make sure everyone is safe and protected.”

Considering all of the logistics that go into an event of this scale, the DNC seems like a massive undertaking for any city. But organizers and supporters remain confident that, as a city that knows how to throw a party, Milwaukee is up to the task.

Summerfest attracts upwards of 825,000 attendees during its annual 11-day music festival along Milwaukee’s lakefront. But unlike the DNC, which will bring in mostly out-of-state visitors who need lodging accommodations, Summerfest’s draw is heavily local.

Still, visitors travel from all 50 states (many from the Chicago area) and 40 countries to attend the iconic event, now in its 52nd year, said Don Smiley, who has served for 15 years as president and chief executive officer of Summerfest and its nonprofit operator, Milwaukee World Festival Inc.

Although Milwaukee has been home to Summerfest for decades, there’s always room for year-over-year improvement, Smiley said.

“You really need to have the right people in the right positions to effectively plan the event, execute the event, and really have impeccable communication skills up and down the ladder,” he said.

Logistics surrounding transportation and security alone require “months and months” of planning, both internal and external collaboration and, when appropriate, transparent communication with the public via news media and social media outlets.

As early as January, Smiley and his leadership team meet with a taskforce of law enforcement agencies, including the Milwaukee Police Department, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Administration to draft a security plan for that year’s festival. Traffic control near the festival grounds is a crucial part of that strategy, Smiley said.

He expects the DNC to present a different security challenge with the number of venues it will use throughout the city.

Harley-Davidson Inc.’s massive anniversary celebrations are perhaps more comparable to the DNC, at least in terms of scope and attendee base. When the company rang in its 115th year last summer, an estimated 150,000 motorcyclists from across the globe came to town for a five-day party that took place throughout the region.

As Harley’s global operations manager, Chris Urban led the planning and execution of the event. Asked how the company made efforts to welcome out-of-town riders who attended, he said that was one thing he didn’t have to worry about.

“The local population takes care of that from a level of excitement and hospitality,” he said. “Citizens and business owners love sharing the city, so fortunately, folks who live here take care of showing visitors around… People genuinely appreciate the welcoming nature and sense of hospitality that Milwaukeeans have.”

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe Meyer started as an intern reporter at BizTimes in summer 2015. She currently covers entertainment, sports, tourism and restaurants. In May 2017, she graduated with a journalism degree from Marquette University where she worked as an in-depth projects reporter for the Marquette Wire and Marquette Tribune.