Derailed DNC threatens Milwaukee’s convention dreams

Former Vice President of the United States Joe Biden speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Former Vice President of the United States Joe Biden speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Credit: Pix_Arena / Shutterstock.com

Last updated on July 24th, 2020 at 11:51 am

The Democratic National Convention Committee insists that Milwaukee will remain a centerpiece of what’s been reduced to a mostly virtual convention this summer, but with only a fraction of the visitors coming to town and the threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus still looming, the once-promised national spotlight for the city is looking pretty dim.

It’s still unclear how many people will actually be in attendance at the Democratic National Convention’s main stage events in Milwaukee, now taking place at the Wisconsin Center instead of Fiserv Forum due to a smaller crowd, according to the DNCC.

State delegations have been urged to stay home and cast votes remotely, and media positions have been reduced. 

Politico reported on party discussions of capping attendance at 1,000 people. Organizers contacted by BizTimes Milwaukee couldn’t confirm, saying the number depends on guidance from local, state and federal public health officials, including epidemiologists Dr. Larry Brilliant and Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, who are now advising the DNCC.

All four nights of what’s been dubbed a “convention across America” will be staged and broadcast live from Milwaukee and other satellite locations across the country that have yet to be announced.

Former Vice President Joe Biden plans to officially accept the party’s nomination in person in Milwaukee, but details surrounding the rest of the convention’s programming have yet to be unveiled, other than the fact that it will include both live broadcasts and user-generated content. 

Despite the fuzzy outline of the DNC’s new format, it’s clear the event will be significantly smaller than initial projections of 50,000 visitors and $200 million in economic impact to the region.  

Sheehy
Sheehy

That’s a hard pill to swallow for Milwaukee’s business community, which was largely responsible for shelling out most of the $70 million originally needed to put on the event, said Tim Sheehy, president of Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. 

“The corporations that gave, gave because of the impact on Milwaukee,” Sheehy said. “But giving also has an opportunity cost – that’s money that’s now not being spent in Milwaukee and it’s money that (those businesses) don’t have to spend in Milwaukee. This is not a bottomless fountain.”

Sheehy said he doesn’t blame the DNCC for its decision to go virtual with the convention. The value of having Milwaukee’s name attached to a major political convention still stands, and the standards that the city met during the bid process indicated that it’s capable of handling an event of this magnitude, he said.

“But what we don’t have is the proof that we can pull it off,” he added.

Alex Lasry
Alex Lasry

Alex Lasry, senior vice president of the Milwaukee Bucks and leader of the local bid committee that brought the DNC to Milwaukee, believes winning the DNC bid is equally as significant as hosting it at full scale. 

“There are no bigger conventions than the DNC,” he said. “So, if the DNC is saying from a logistics standpoint and from a capacity standpoint that Milwaukee can handle the convention, that means we can do it. They’ve already given us the seal of approval.”

He said it’s time for Milwaukee to put itself out there for other large-scale events and conventions down the road. Plus, the corporate and institutional support is there, considering Milwaukee raised more money than other potential host cities during the bid process, he said.

The convention remains an opportunity for Milwaukee to tell its story and gain media exposure. But that doesn’t take away from the huge loss to the city and the local businesses that stood to benefit.

Among them is Milwaukee-based JCP Construction. In February, the business won the local host committee’s bid for construction general contractor, and would have been part of the team responsible for building out Fiserv Forum and the surrounding property for the DNC.

Now that the mostly-virtual event has been moved to the convention center, the major contract has been scaled back, said James Phelps, president of JCP Construction. 

The family-owned business had allocated resources to ensure it exceeded the DNC’s expectations, he said. Now, revenue is expected to take a hit. There’s still work to be done at the convention center but not nearly as much as what was originally planned. 

“It’s unfortunate that we won’t necessarily have the DNC in the same scope and context as we had originally hoped, but Milwaukeeans and business owners all want to still show what Milwaukee is made of and what it has to offer,” said Phelps. 

Amid months of uncertainty around the convention’s format and whether it would still take place in Milwaukee, some local leaders, including Sheehy, have tossed around the idea of Milwaukee hosting the convention in 2024.

Now, Sheehy questions whether the same level of financial support could be garnered from the business community a second time around when the benefit this year, he estimates, will be “10 or 20% of what it could have been.”

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has also been a supporter of bringing the DNC back to Milwaukee in four years. Barnes said he’d love to see Milwaukee top the Democrats’ potential host city list in 2024, but the chances of being selected for two consecutive conventions is slim, he said.

“I think the challenge in front of us is it’s much more difficult now,” Barnes said. “If it went to an all-virtual convention, there may be more of a chance.”

Barnes said Wisconsin’s politics, coming off of President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory and the Democrats’ sweep of the 2018 mid-term election, was a huge selling point during the time of the 2020 DNC bidding process, but that may not be the case in four years.

Gary Witt, co-owner and chief executive officer of The Pabst Theater Group, has been especially vocal about the DNC’s potential return to Milwaukee. He said he’s calling on local leaders, including Mayor Tom Barrett, County Executive David Crowley and VISIT Milwaukee, to “do what’s best for Milwaukee” and campaign to bring the convention back to the city in 2024.

“I think there’s a window of time here where if they’re able to gain public support—public support bends the rules of everything that we live in today,” said Witt. “Milwaukee deserves a full DNC.”

He said the opportunity to host a major in-person political convention means too much for businesses and civic leaders not to rally around it, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and economic fallout.

“We would welcome any political convention in 2024,” said Peggy Williams-Smith, president and CEO of VISIT Milwaukee.

She echoed Barnes’ concerns over the bidding process, and how changes in the political landscape influence the party’s host city selection.

“There’s so much work that went in to bidding. You form a local organizing committee, you have to have financial commitments,” said Williams-Smith. “I am willing to work with anyone who wants to make a pitch for this, but the pitch wouldn’t start until late 2022 because we don’t even know who would be running in 2024.”

In the meantime, she is focusing on the positive impacts of Milwaukee being named host city of the DNC. Since it won its bid, Williams-Smith said, convention and event bookings in Milwaukee have increased. Before COVID-19, VISIT Milwaukee booked nearly 30,000 more hotel rooms for January through May this year than it did last year.

With the convention’s new format, Williams-Smith said she’ll miss showing Milwaukee off to visitors here for the first time. But she remains optimistic that the eyes of the world will still be on Milwaukee this summer.

“We were really looking forward to being able to welcome 50,000 guests and be able to show them what Milwaukee has to offer in person,” Williams-Smith said. “Now, we’ll just have to do it virtually.” 

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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.

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