Viewpoints: The biggest local business stories of 2019

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 March 17th, 2020 at 01:32 pm

Years from now, 2019 may be remembered as a significant year for the Milwaukee area, that set the stage for even bigger things in 2020.

As this year comes to a close, I am continuing my annual tradition of providing a list of my picks for the biggest southeastern Wisconsin business stories of the year (you can also check out my lists for 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015).

Here’s my list of the biggest area business stories for 2019, in ascending order:

Cruise ship docked outside Discovery World at Port Milwaukee.

20. Milwaukee becomes a cruise ship destination
Milwaukee will never be one of the world’s top cruise ship destinations, but a growing number of ships are including it on excursions. Port Milwaukee welcomed 10 passenger ship visits in 2019, which more than doubles last year’s total. Those vessels brought an estimated 3,200 tourists to the area this year. “Milwaukee is an important and growing port-of-call for Great Lakes cruising, and that means more visitors, more tourism dollars, and greater attention focused on our city,” said port director Adam Schlicht. “I am pleased with this year’s increase and optimistic that we will see even more cruise ship visits in the coming years.”

19. Alpine Valley bounces back
Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Walworth County was silent in 2017, when no shows were held there. It was struggling to compete for concert bookings with other venues, especially Chicago venues. But Alpine Valley bounced back in a big way in 2019 with a robust lineup. Dave Matthews Band, a longtime staple at the venue, played back-to-back shows on July 5 and 6, following a two-year hiatus. Other artists booked this year included the Who, Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band, Phish, Hootie & the Blowfish, and the Willie Nelson-backed benefit concert Farm Aid. Alpine Valley’s longtime owner, Milwaukee-based Zilber Ltd., sold the venue this year to Daytona Beach, Florida-based Consolidated-Tomoka Land Co. for $7.5 million.

18. Redevelopment plans unveiled for Bayshore
Dallas-based developer Cypress Equities Managed Services L.P. began work on a $75 million redevelopment project for Bayshore in Glendale, which will include downsizing the mall’s retail space and demolishing or converting existing buildings for other uses such as residential units, a hotel, independent senior living, a medical facility, restaurants and office space. Glendale will provide up $36.7 million is assistance for the project, depending on its progress and success.

17. Soldiers Home project begins
After years of decay, restoration work finally began this year on the Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home project, which will consist of the rehabilitation of six buildings on the grounds of the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center, located near Miller Park, to provide housing for veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Madison-based developer The Alexander Co. and the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee in 2016 were selected to lead the restoration project by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Once the work is complete, the buildings will provide 101 supportive-housing units.

Rendering of the Journal Square project
Rendering of the Journal Square project

16. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel changes
As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel continues to shrink its staff, some redevelopment plans were unveiled this year for its iconic block in downtown Milwaukee. Milwaukee developer J. Jeffers & Co. announced plans to redevelop two Journal Sentinel buildings, including the creation of up to 203 units of affordable, student and workforce residential housing. Jeffers hasn’t yet disclosed plans for the remaining buildings on the block, which include a four-story structure to the south and the Major Goolsby’s sports bar at 340 W. Kilbourn Ave. The Journal Sentinel will remain in the buildings until its lease expires in 2020, when it will then move into the 330 Kilbourn office towers in downtown Milwaukee.

Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee
Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee

15. Hotel development boom
New hotel developments continue to crop up throughout the region, especially in downtown Milwaukee, Brookfield, Oak Creek and Racine. The city of Oak Creek and a Wisconsin Dells-based hotel developer and operator will partner to develop two hotels totaling up to 221 rooms and an 11,500-square-foot conference and event center on land just south of the Ikea furniture store. A 95-room avid hotel is also planned in Oak Creek. Dominion Properties plans to convert the former Zahn’s department store building in downtown Racine into an 80-room boutique hotel. Downtown Racine’s Festival Hall convention center would be expanded by more than 10,000 square feet and a new Sheraton Hotel with at least 173 rooms would be constructed under a $48 million proposal. An Illinois-based developer plans to construct a three-story, 100-room hotel near Interstate 94 in the village of Yorkville. A new 227-room Drury Plaza Hotel opened in downtown Milwaukee. A 132-room Cambria hotel opened in downtown Milwaukee. Potawatomi Hotel & Casino opened its second hotel tower, adding 119 rooms and bringing the hotel’s total up to 500. There are many other examples, but I think you get the picture.

14. Medical College, Greater Milwaukee Foundation to redevelop King Drive building
The Medical College of Wisconsin and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation announced plans for an $84.5 million redevelopment of the former Gimbels and Schuster’s Department Store building in Milwaukee’s Halyard Park neighborhood at 2153 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The project will include 131,000 square feet of office space, 40,000 square feet of early childhood education and fitness center space, 77 affordable apartment units and a 315-stall parking structure. The office space will be home to both MCW’s community engagement programs and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s headquarters. The project will redevelop the 470,000-square-foot building that has been primarily used as storage for decades.

13. MSOE opens new comp sci building, completes renovations to innovation and technology center
The Milwaukee School of Engineering this year celebrated the completion of two major projects. It opened the Dwight and Dian Diercks Computational Science Hall, a new $34 million AI-focused academic facility in the center of its campus. The four-story, 64,000-square-foot facility, located at the corner of Milwaukee and State streets, features a graphics processing unit-accelerated supercomputer to be used by students and local industry partners, auditorium, cybersecurity room, lecture halls and classrooms, and study areas for students. In addition, Direct Supply Inc. unveiled the completion of a $14 million renovation of its Innovation & Technology Center on the MSOE campus. The ITC, formerly located on two floors of the former German-English Academy at 1020 N. Broadway, now occupies the entire 55,000-square-foot building.

12. Astronautics leaving central city for suburbs
Astronautics Corporation of America, which has had a corporate presence in Milwaukee since 1959, announced that it would consolidate its operations in Oak Creek at the former headquarters of Master Lock. The move will shift 450 employees from Milwaukee to Oak Creek. The company’s headquarters office has already made the move to Oak Creek and its other area operations will move there in the coming years. Astronautics’ headquarters was previously located at 4115 N. Teutonia Ave. on Milwaukee’s north side and the company’s main manufacturing facility is located at 1426 W. National Ave., on the city’s south side.

Bucks fans pack the plaza in front of Fiserv Forum before a playoff game. Credit: Milwaukee Bucks

11. Huge year for the Bucks, Giannis and Fiserv Forum
The first year of Fiserv Forum (which opened in the fall of 2018), was a huge success, largely because the Milwaukee Bucks, led by NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2001. Huge crowds filled the new arena to see the Bucks, Marquette basketball games and several major concerts. The area around the arena, including the entertainment block developed by the Bucks and occupied by Good City Brewing, Punch Bowl Social, MECCA Sports Bar and Grill and Drink Wisconsinbly is now one of the hottest entertainment destinations in the city.


Gary Grunau
Gary Grunau

10. Iconic Milwaukee business leaders pass away
Like any community, each year unfortunately includes the loss of valuable members. However, 2019 was especially tough with the death of several prominent members of the Milwaukee business community. Perhaps most noteworthy were the deaths of two iconic Milwaukee business and civic leaders, developer Gary Grunau and restaurateur Joe Bartolotta.

Joe Bartolotta

The president and co-founder of The Bartolotta Restaurants, Joe Bartolotta, and his brother and business partner, Paul, grew their business presence from one restaurant to 16 restaurants and catering facilities in the Milwaukee market, building a reputation as one of the premier restaurant groups in the Midwest. They were nominated by the James Beard Foundation for Outstanding Restaurateur three years in a row – 2017, 2018 and 2019. Grunau partnered on the transformation of the former Schlitz brewery into the Schlitz Park office complex, and the development of the corporate headquarters for ManpowerGroup. He was also involved in several major civic projects including the downtown Riverwalk, Discovery World and the Wisconsin Center.

9. Uline plans another big expansion
Pleasant Prairie-based Uline Inc. announced that it plans to build two new distribution centers along I-94 in Kenosha, a $130 million project that would add 350 jobs. The first would be a nearly 1.1 million-square-foot distribution center located immediately south of Highway 142 and just east of 128th Avenue. The second building would be a nearly 644,000-square-foot distribution facility located just east of the first new building. The two buildings would complete the four-building campus Uline has been constructing over the last several years. Hiring for the new facilities would take employment at the Kenosha campus from around 700 to 1,050. The distributor of shipping, industrial and packaging materials has grown its presence significantly in Kenosha County and will have more than 5 million square feet of space when the buildings are complete. Uline has more than 2,500 employees in the county, according to the Kenosha Area Business Alliance.

8. Quad’s big deal dies, company selling off two divisions
Last year, Sussex-based Quad/Graphics announced it would acquire Chicago-based LSC Communications in a massive $1.4 billion deal, combining the nation’s two largest printing companies. But this year those plans were spoiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, which in June sued the companies to block the deal. The DOJ argued that if the deal had been approved, Quad/Graphics would have dominated the magazine, catalog and book printing markets. In trying to make the case for the importance of the deal, Quad and LSC said their combined revenue would drop by more than $1.5 billion by 2022 without combining or taking other actions. However, instead of fighting back against the DOJ’s lawsuit, the companies agreed to walk away from the deal, which required Quad to pay LSC a $45 million termination fee. Later in the year, Quad announced plans to sell its U.S. book business, which it acquired in 2010 as part of its World Color transaction and generates around $200 million in annual sales. The company also sold Transpak, its heavy-duty industrial wood crating business, this year. Quad’s stock price fell from $13.03 a share at the start of the year to $4.60 a share in late December, and a pair of lawsuits were filed against the company alleging it had not adequately disclosed its performance.

7. Molson Coors to move hundreds of jobs to Milwaukee
Molson Coors this year announced a major restructuring plan, which includes moving its North American headquarters to Chicago and moving hundreds of white-collar jobs to the former Miller Brewing Company office complex on the west side of Milwaukee. The exact number of jobs has yet to be announced, but it will provide a major boost to the city’s west side. Most of the jobs that will be moved to Milwaukee will be in finance, sales and human resources. Molson Coors currently has 1,300 employees in Milwaukee, including about 600 white-collar employees. It also has a significant amount of vacant office space left behind after Milwaukee lost the Miller Brewing headquarters when the MillerCoors joint venture was formed in 2008. That vacant office space made Milwaukee an attractive option for Molson Coors’ consolidation plans.

6. Fiserv acquires First Data
Brookfield-based Fiserv Inc. acquired New York-based First Data Corp. in a $22 billion all-stock deal that combined two Fortune 500 firms. Fiserv provides back-end processing for banks and credit unions while First Data is a giant in point-of-sale transactions. The combination gives Fiserv an end-to-end solution in the payments space. When it was announced, it was the largest acquisition ever in the fintech industry.

Mandel building
Mandel building. Photo courtesy of American Family Insurance

5. American Family making big moves in Milwaukee
Madison-based American Family Insurance announced huge deals this year to increase its presence in the Milwaukee area. First, the Milwaukee Brewers announced that American Family would become the new naming rights sponsor for Miller Park. The ballpark, which opened in 2001, will have a new name in 2021. That name has not been announced yet, but it will somehow involve the American Family brand. Even bigger news came later in the year when American Family announced it would bring 400 jobs to the former Mandel printing building in downtown Milwaukee, including 250 employees that will be relocated from Pewaukee.

4. Milwaukee Tool to build massive Menomonee Falls campus
Brookfield-based Milwaukee Tool, which has posted impressive growth and done two major expansion projects at its headquarters in recent years, announced plans to create a new campus in Menomonee Falls. The company said it plans to add another 870 jobs in Wisconsin, and could have a 2.5 million-square-foot, $100 million campus in Menomonee Falls by 2025.

Protesters let aldermen know Tuesday that they oppose plans for the Strauss Brands facility in Milwaukee.
Protesters let aldermen know that they oppose plans for the Strauss Brands facility in Milwaukee.

3. Strauss Brands plans to move to Century City collapse
Seeking a larger facility to expand, Strauss Brands this year announced plans to move its corporate headquarters and meat processing facility operations from Franklin to a proposed new facility at the Century City business park in Milwaukee. The move would have initially brought 250 jobs to the northwest side of the city, and city incentives were proposed to encourage additional hiring that some said could eventually push employment at the facility to 500. The announcement appeared to be a huge victory for the city’s efforts to attract jobs to the mostly-vacant Century City complex, which was formerly the home of A.O. Smith. However, activists opposed to plans for a “slaughterhouse” in Milwaukee rallied neighbors to fight the project. After being inundated with complaints from angry constituents, Ald. Khalif Rainey, who represents the area, flip-flopped from supporter to opponent of the Strauss project. The company then withdrew its plans. The rapid collapse of the deal was stunning. Some officials, including Mayor Tom Barrett, have held out hope that Strauss will reconsider Century City, but the company has declined to discuss its next move publicly and neighbors would still have to be won over.

2. Foxconn project progresses, but state says it’s not eligible for incentives
Construction continued this year on Foxconn’s manufacturing complex in Mount Pleasant, and plans for additional buildings were announced. The company said it hopes to gain tax credits for the first time as part of its massive incentive package with the state. However, Gov. Tony Evers says the company is not eligible for tax credits because its plans have changed so dramatically since it signed its deal with the state. Officials with Evers’ administration say the company needs to renegotiate its deal with the state.

1. Milwaukee picked to host 2020 Democratic National Convention
It seemed like a crazy idea at first. Cities the size of Milwaukee don’t get to host national conventions for major political parties. But a team led by Milwaukee Bucks vice president Alex Lasry made a strong bid, bolstered by the new Fiserv Forum and Wisconsin’s status as a political swing state. Stunningly, Milwaukee won the bid for the 2020 DNC, beating out Miami and Houston. The event, to be held from July 13-16, is expected to attract 50,000 visitors and make a $200 million economic impact on the region. It will also provide a massive amount of national and international media exposure for Milwaukee.

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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