Omar Shaikh to stay on as VISIT Milwaukee board chair

Term to end June 2021, pending board approval

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Omar Shaikh will stay on as board chair of VISIT Milwaukee until June 2021, delaying plans to transition out of the role at year’s end.

The co-owner of SURG Restaurant Group on Friday said, via Twitter and later in an interview with BizTimes Milwaukee, that he feels it’s necessary to continue supporting VISIT Milwaukee chief executive officer Peggy Williams-Smith as she navigates the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, now just eight months into her role.

“She’s been trying to work her way out of quicksand,” said Shaikh, referring to the ongoing pandemic, which has upended the local and national tourism and hospitality industries.

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“Due to the newness of me in this role, we decided that continuity would be paramount as we begin to recover from the economic devastation caused by the pandemic,” said  Williams-Smith in a statement Monday.

Shaikh said remaining for the full fifth year of his term, rather than leaving halfway through, will allow more time to work with Williams-Smith on initiatives that were interrupted by the pandemic.

Steve Baas
Steve Baas

Steve Baas, who was slated to succeed Shaikh as chairman on Jan. 1, remains in his role as vice chair for now. Baas has served on VISIT Milwaukee’s board of directors since 2018, and currently works as the senior vice president of government affairs at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. 

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Baas’ appointment initially sparked criticism by Milwaukee Ald. Michael Murphy, who issued a statement on June 9, calling the move “tone deaf.” In the statement, Murphy referenced a 2016 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report on leaked documents from the John Doe investigation into questionable political moves of former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican aides. A leaked email chain revealed Baas and conservative political operatives considered plans to stir up concerns of voter fraud while there was uncertainty about former Supreme Court Justice David Prosser’s defeat of challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg in 2011, according to the Journal Sentinel report.

“In a time of potentially significant change and awakening in terms of correcting injustices perpetrated against African Americans and people of color for decades, why in the world are we putting Steve Baas in charge of the board of directors of our top tourism entity?,” Murphy asked in his statement. 

Asked Friday about Murphy’s criticism, Baas didn’t indicate there was any connection with VISIT’s decision to keep Shaikh as chairman.

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“I volunteer at VISIT to help the city, not to create a fan club,” he said. “I think we’ve got so many important things to do in Milwaukee that to bog them down in personality conflicts is not productive, and so, I’m not going to engage in that.”

As of now, Baas said, it looks like he will still take over as chairman of the VISIT Milwaukee board when Shaikh leaves in June of 2021 because “vice chair usually assumes the chairmanship” once the term ends, but also said VISIT has a “busy year” ahead before those decisions are made.

Shaikh said Murphy’s statement brought VISIT some unwanted attention, but it didn’t have an impact on the decision to remain at his post. He touted Baas’ involvement with securing state funding to move ahead with the proposed expansion of the downtown Milwaukee convention center.

“I don’t know if we could have gotten this done without him,” Shaikh said. 

Murphy said in an interview with BizTimes Monday morning that he’s not going to question VISIT Milwaukee’s motivation to keep Shaikh as chairman and he’s “just happy with the end result.” He also expressed doubt that Baas will end up taking over as chairman in June of 2021 when Shaikh’s term is up.

“In the end, I stand by my comments,” he said. I think those types of dirty trick politics that he was engaged in, which help lead to the voter suppression voter ID bill, has long term detrimental impacts on our community… that’s not the type of person I thought should be leading us this era.”

Shaikh’s agreement to serve a full term, ending June 2021, will go before VISIT’s board of directors for final approval in July. Executive team appointments are typically approved in June, but the board approved a one-month extension after the pandemic had delayed a few appointments from community stakeholders, said Williams-Smith.  

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