Milwaukee’s tourism industry made progress in 2004

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With the holiday season in full swing and the New Year almost upon us, I thought it would be an appropriate time to use this year-end column to recap some of the tourism-related highlights for 2004 and look ahead at what bountiful gifts 2005 promises to bring to Milwaukee-area visitors.
There were a number of attractions, events and conventions that put a positive national and international spotlight on Milwaukee, drew thousands of visitors to the area and contributed to the economic health of the region. Here are a few of them:
— The Lake Express high-speed ferry. This sleek new boat, which debuted in June and makes the Milwaukee to Muskegon, Mich., journey in about 2-1/2 hours, has transported thousands of Michigan visitors to our side of the lake to experience some great Milwaukee hospitality.
— The Milwaukee Public Museum and its "Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt" exhibit. The only Midwest stop for this impressive collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, the exhibit wowed about 200,000 visitors during its four-month run earlier this year.
— PGA Championship: Whistling Straits in Kohler was the site, but Milwaukee served as the gateway city to a large number of guests who experienced our hotels, restaurants and attractions. Kudos also to the U.S. Bank Championship (formally the Greater Milwaukee Open). Final rounds for both of these events were played under blue skies, showcasing our area to a worldwide television audience as a true golf mecca.
— All Milwaukee-area events and attractions. When it comes to showing visitors a good time, Milwaukee takes a backseat to no one. That’s recognized by the fact that eight of our area attractions – Jazz in the Park, Bastille Days, the Lakefront Festival of the Arts, the Grape Lakes Food and Wine Festival, the Holiday Folk Fair International, Irish Fest, Summerfest and the Wisconsin State Fair – all took home Pinnacle Awards from the International Festivals & Events Association.
— 2004 also saw some large conventions in town, including the Government Finance Officers Association, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the National Association of College & University Business Officers, the Northwestern Financial Network and the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
What’s on tap
In 2005, we’ll begin to see the results of our next $1 billion in new tourism attraction investments with the scheduled opening of the Milwaukee Public Market.
The Public Market, an $11.3 million project, will provide consumers with a new experience and "green market" for downtown, while also adding to the architectural ambience of the Historic Third Ward.
2005 Wish List
Now that the city has cleared the way for the Harley-Davidson Museum (to open in 2008), we need to see progress on two developments that are critical in the further development of downtown: the former Pabst Brewery and the Park East freeway corridor. Both have the potential to enhance the reputation of our city to outside visitors. Both of these attractions will offer more retail, entertainment and dining options and more action downtown. It’s important that all of these projects stay on the fast track.
I’d also be remiss without a few words on the biggest infrastructure project in the history of our state, the $800 million Marquette Interchange rebuild. While necessary, anticipated gridlock and accompanying negative publicity has the potential to "scare away" potential visitors from in-state and the Chicago / Northern Illinois region. We’re looking for state officials to recognize the value of tourism to our economy and earmark funds to undertake additional Milwaukee marketing to "at-risk" visitors who may be hesitant to visit the area during the construction project.
And lastly, let’s continue to work together to change the perceptions of Milwaukee to potential visitors. We need to be recognized not for what we were, but what we are – a dynamic and diverse city rich in arts and culture and ready to roll out the welcome mat to people from throughout the world.
We’re going to have an opportunity to showcase our diversity next year when we host such high-profile conventions as the NAACP, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Gospel Music Workshop, to name just a few.
We must capitalize on these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Doug Neilson is president and chief executive officer of the Greater Milwaukee Convention & Visitors Bureau. His monthly column about the Milwaukee tourism industry appears exclusively in Small Business Times. For more information on what’s happening in Milwaukee or comments about the column, visit
December 10, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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