CNN backs out of plans to take over Turner Hall during DNC

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CNN will no longer lease Turner Hall in downtown Milwaukee during the 2020 Democratic National Convention, which remains set to take place here this summer, but likely smaller in size and scope than originally expected due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gary Witt, co-owner and chief executive officer of The Pabst Theater Group, tweeted Friday morning that “CNN has decided not to take over Turner Hall” for DNC coverage. The group operates Turner Hall Ballroom and three other concert venues in town.

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“Given what was happening, we fully expected that that was the possibility,” Witt said later in an interview with BizTimes Milwaukee.

In early April, organizers postponed the DNC about one month to the week of August 17 in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. One week later, it was reported that CNN had plans to lease Turner Hall as its convention coverage headquarters, famously known as CNN Grill.

“Every convention (since 2004) they’ve done the CNN Grill in every city they’ve done it in,” said Witt. “I think that sends a message if they’re deciding not to do the CNN Grill, that obviously things are gong to be extremely different at this convention.”

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Witt said he’d been in frequent contact with CNN as the outlet worked to get city approval to install CNN Grill signs on the historic building. Mike Eitel, whose local bar-restaurant operator Caravan Hospitality Group runs the venue’s lower-level restaurant Tavern at Turner had been working on the F&B side of the deal.

“We had a virtual meeting a week or two ago and they let us know,” said Eitel. “I think that there’s so much uncertainty about what the convention is, so we’re just all in limbo on everything at this point.”

Five shows and three weddings were moved to later dates to accommodate CNN’s plans, said Witt. Now, there are no events on the calendar during the week of the DNC for Turner Hall, The Riverside Theater or The Pabst Theater.

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In recent weeks, more questions about the convention’s format and crowd size have circulated as Democrats consider holding the event virtually for the first time in party history.

“If the DNC becomes a virtual DNC, every media outlet will come to cover it but that doesn’t mean we’re going to get 50,000 people to come to downtown Milwaukee,” said Witt. “What it means is we’ll probably get 1,000 media people and 200 people who are in the DNC to be there.”

Will said hosting the DNC in 2024 would help Milwaukee make the most of a momentous event, and give the city something to look forward to during a time of economic hardship.

In an interview with BizTimes Milwaukee, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes echoed Witt’s support for Milwaukee hosting the 2024 convention, if this year’s event is held virtually.

“If we do move to a format that doesn’t give Milwaukee the benefit that we were all expecting, then I do think we should get first dibs at 2024 … nobody expected this, so I do absolutely think 2024, the DNC should be ours,” Barnes said.

The 2020 DNC was originally expected to bring 50,000 visitors and $250 million in economic impact to the region. Fiserv Forum remains its main venue, but the estimated 2,500 ancillary events that were being planned at venues across the city and state before and during the convention now seem unlikely.

Get more news and insight in the April 27 issue of BizTimes Milwaukee. Subscribe to get updates in your inbox here.

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