Oh yes, 2020 was terrible. Thankfully it’s almost over. 2021 has to be better, right?
It’s time to take one last look at 2020 and then say goodbye forever. A New Year's Eve tradition, I present my annual list of the biggest southeastern Wisconsin business stories of the year (you can also check out my lists for 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015).
Usually I run this list in descending order, but this year I’m going to start with the biggest stories of the year and work down. Might as well get the bad stuff out of the way ASAP.
So, here it is, my list of the biggest local business stories of 2020 (you can also check out today's BizTimes MKE podcast, in which I discuss these stories):
1. The devastating impact of COVID-19
This was supposed to be Milwaukee’s big year, when a revitalized city would shine on the national and international spotlight as host of the Democratic National Convention and maybe, we dared to dream, the NBA Finals. That could have occurred in back-to-back months in downtown Milwaukee this summer.
Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic created a massive public health crisis that has resulted in more than 337,000 deaths in the U.S. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and more than 4,800 deaths in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Health Services. More than 19.4 million Americans and more than 477,000 people in Wisconsin have been infected with COVID-19.
Efforts to slow the spread of the pandemic, reduce the burden it would have on the health care system and save lives had a devastating impact on the region and its economy. Milwaukee’s big year was destroyed as the DNC became a mostly virtual event and other events were cancelled. The Ryder Cup, planned for Whistling Straits in Sheboygan County, was postponed.
In March, Gov. Tony Evers issued a “safer at home” order, requiring all but essential workers to work from home. That order was then thrown out by the state Supreme Court in May.
The U.S. and local economy tanked in the second quarter as mandatory lockdown orders across the country brought the economy to a halt. After those orders were lifted the economy recovered significantly, but has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Evers issued a face mask mandate and some local governments continue to place limits on business operations, especially restrictions on restaurant capacity.
The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit during the pandemic. Restaurants have tried to survive with outdoor dining, carryout and delivery. But several have gone out of business and more are expected to as winter limits outdoor dining options.
As the year comes to an end, COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna are being distributed, bringing some hope that the pandemic will end in 2021. Frontline health care workers, who bravely led the fight against the virus this year, risking their own health to care for those infected, were the first to get the vaccine.
However, the initial distribution of the vaccine has been slow. At the current paceit would take 10 years to get enough Americans vaccinated to end the pandemic. In addition, the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration are investigating an incident at Aurora Medical Center-Grafton that led to the destruction of more than 500 does of COVID-19 vaccine. Advocate Aurora Health says it fired an employee who it says intentionally left 57 vials of the vaccine out of a pharmacy refrigerator.
[caption id="attachment_515584" align="alignright" width="500"] Piles of debris sit within the shell of what was once B & L Office Furniture Inc. on 60th Street in Kenosha.[/caption]
2. Civil unrest in response to violent confrontations between suspects and police
This is the other big story of 2020 in America, and it hit home hard in southeastern Wisconsin. Protests broke out across the country after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May. Graphic video of the incident set off protesters upset about numerous violent confrontations between police and African-American suspects, including some that have occurred in Milwaukee. Protests in Milwaukee following Floyd’s death were mostly peaceful, but at times turned violent with vandalism and looting done to several Milwaukee businesses.
Then in August, another confrontation between police and an African-American suspect set off violent protests. In Kenosha, Jacob Blake was shot in the back by a police officer. As a result of the shooting, Blake was paralyzed from the waist down. Protesters took to the streets in Kenosha and those protests escalated into violence with several businesses burned, destroyed or damaged.
Despite the destruction caused by the rioting, the protests brought attention to issues of systemic racism and racial inequality in American and in southeastern Wisconsin, forcing many, including leaders in the local business community, to examine ways they and their organizations can be part of the solution.
[caption id="attachment_499105" align="alignright" width="500"] Molson Coors brewery in Milwaukee[/caption]
3. Mass shootings at Molson Coors brewery and at Mayfair Mall
Mass shootings occurred at two of the Milwaukee area’s highest profile businesses in 2020. In February, an employee at the Molson Coors brewery in Milwaukee shot and killed five employees at the brewery, plus himself. Police identified the victims as Dale Hudson, 60, of Waukesha; Gennady Levshetz, 61, of Mequon; Jesus Valle Jr., 33, of Milwaukee; Dana Walk, 57, of Delafield; and Trevor Wetselaar, 33, of Milwaukee. The suspect, who police said died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, was identified as Anthony Ferrill, 51, of Milwaukee.
In November, eight people were wounded in a shooting near the Macy’s store at Mayfair mall in Wauwatosa. A 15-year-old boy was arrested and charged with the shooting.
[caption id="attachment_514047" align="alignright" width="500"] Recent aerial photo of the Foxconn campus in Mount Pleasant. Shot by Curtis Waltz of aerialscapes.com[/caption]
4. State denies tax credits for Foxconn
The development of the Foxconn complex in Mount Pleasant continued in 2020, but at a slow pace and it is not turning out to be anything like what was promised in the original deal between former Gov. Scott Walker and the company.
In 2017, Walker and Legislative Republicans approved a $2.85 billion incentive package, and local improvements pushed the total subsidy for the project to around $4 billion, for Foxconn, which pledged to build a massive complex to manufacture LCD screens. The state incentives were depended on hiring and capital investment and Foxconn said it planned to eventually have 13,000 employees at the site. The company said it would create a massive supply chain in the state and the Foxconn project was seen as a game-changer for the state’s economy.
But now, three years later, Foxconn has failed to live up to its lofty promises and Gov. Tony Evers’ administration has refused to provide the company with any tax credits. When Foxconn announced its plans for a $10 billion investment in Wisconsin, the company said it would build a Gen. 10.5 plant designed for making large screens. Foxconn changed course and said it would build a Gen. 6 plant in Mount Pleasant, designed for making smaller screens used in laptops, tablets and other applications. The company said this would give it more flexibility moving forward. Later the company announced plans for other products it could make in Mount Pleasant.
The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the state’s economic development agency, says the company’s deal with the state is void, because it is not building the Gen. 10.5 plant as originally planned. The Evers’ administration says the company needs to work out a new deal with the state, based on what it is actually is doing in Wisconsin. Talks between state officials and Foxconn are ongoing.
5. Briggs & Stratton declares bankruptcy, sold to private equity firm
Wauwatosa-based Briggs & Stratton, one of the Milwaukee-area’s most iconic companies, filed for bankruptcy this summer as it faced looming debt maturities and a need for capital to fund its operations. In September, the company was sold out of bankruptcy to KPS Capital Partners, a New York-based private equity firm, for $550 million. Former International Equipment Solutions CEO Steve Andrews was brought in to replace Todd Teske as CEO of Briggs & Stratton, and this fall the company said it was hiring for more than 100 salary and hourly positions in Milwaukee and hundreds more across its other operations.
6. GE Healthcare plans huge upgrades in West Milwaukee
GE Healthcare announced that it will invest $50 million to improve its West Milwaukee facility and will bring 1,500 jobs to that facility and its Wauwatosa facility. The jobs will be moved to West Milwaukee and GE Healthcare’s Wauwatosa office building and most of them will come from the company’s Waukesha campus, where it plans to sell several buildings, and other locations in Wisconsin. The company will continue to use its Magnetic Resonance buildings in Waukesha and around 600 existing jobs will stay on that campus.
7. Two new office buildings open in downtown Milwaukee
[caption id="attachment_504570" align="alignright" width="500"] BMO Tower. Photo credit: Jon Elliott of MKE Drones LLC[/caption]
A pandemic is certainly not an ideal time to open a new office building, but two were completed this year in downtown Milwaukee.
Irgens completed the 25-story, $137 million BMO Tower at 790 N. Water St. Tenants include: with BMO Harris, Michael Best, Heartland Advisors and Andrus.
J. Jeffers & Co. completed the 11-story, $60 million Huron Building at 511 N. Broadway, which is anchored by Husch Blackwell.
8. Milwaukee Tool growth continues
Brookfield-based Milwaukee Tool continued its rapid growth in the area, moving forward with plans to create a $100 million, multi-purpose second corporate campus in Menomonee Falls (first announced in late 2019) and also announced plans for a new factory in West Bend, a $26 million facility that could have 100 employees by the end of 2025.
9. Expansion plans for Wisconsin Center finally approved
[caption id="attachment_498882" align="alignright" width="500"] Wisconsin Center expansion rendering: tvsdesign and Eppstein Uhen Architects[/caption]
Plans to expand the Wisconsin Center (the convention center in downtown Milwaukee) have been discussed for years, with no progress. That finally changed in 2020, when plans were approved for a $420 million expansion project that will double the size of the facility. Construction is expected to begin in late 2021, and be complete in early 2024.
10. Milwaukee Public Museum picks location for future facility
The Milwaukee Public Museum made big news this year, announcing that it plans to build a new facility northeast of North 6th Street and McKinley Avenue in downtown Milwaukee. MPM also announced that Betty Brinn Children’s Museum will move to the facility from its current location near the lakefront. The planned 230,000-square-foot facility will include 30,000 square feet for Betty Brinn Children’s Museum.
11. Rite-Hite to build new HQ near downtown Milwaukee
[caption id="attachment_516670" align="alignright" width="500"] A rendering of Rite-Hite’s planned headquarters in Reed Street Yards.[/caption]
Rite-Hite Holding Corp. announced plans to move its headquarters from Brown Deer to a new headquarters complex that will be built in the Reed Street Yards in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood. The development will include a four-story, 158,300-square-foot office building and a two-story, 103,000-square-foot research and development building. Site work for the project has begun.
12. New Strauss Brands HQ finally gains approval, in Franklin
Last year Strauss Brands announced plans to move its headquarters and meat processing operations from Franklin to a new facility in Milwaukee’s Century City business park. The project would have brought 250 much-needed jobs to the city’s north side and the company planned to eventually grow employment there to 500. But some neighbors objected to living near a “slaughterhouse,” and Ald. Khalif Rainey, who represents the area, switch from supporting the project to opposing it. That led Strauss to withdraw its plans. I named this fiasco the third biggest business story of 2019.
This year Strauss came up with new plans, this time for a new facility in its hometown of Franklin. As in Milwaukee, similar concerns were raised about the 152,000-square-foot facility planned for a new business park at Loomis Road and Monarch Drive. A petition signed by opponents of the project said meat processing facilities of this size create “serious public health (and) environmental pollution issues.”
The Franklin Common Council at first rejected the company’s plans. Like in Milwaukee, the local business community expressed outrage that city government was standing in the way of a business development. But unlike in Milwaukee, Franklin then reversed course. Its Common Council reconsidered the proposal, one member switched their vote resulting in a tie, and then the mayor cast the tie-breaking vote to approve the project.
A community group has filed a lawsuit objecting to the city’s approval of the project.
13. Couture finally ready to break ground
[caption id="attachment_516082" align="alignright" width="500"] Night view of The Couture from North Lincoln Memorial Drive and East Clybourn Street. Rendering: Rinka[/caption]
The Couture, a long-planned 44-story luxury apartment tower first proposed near the downtown Milwaukee lakefront in 2012, may finally be moving forward. This year, project developer Barrett Lo Visionary Development announced that it has finally obtained the financing necessary to build The Couture. The firm says it will close on the financing package and break ground for The Couture in January.
14. Geneva Supply to expand in Kenosha County
Delavan-based Geneva Supply, one of the fastest growing companies in southeastern Wisconsin, announced plans to expand into Kenosha County. The county purchased the former American Girl Doll facility in western Kenosha County. The 385,000-square-foot facility in the town of Randall has been vacant for almost two years. Geneva Supply, a third-party logistics provider specializing in e-commerce, plans to employ more than 100 people there.
15. Haribo finally breaks ground
German gummy bear maker Haribo has finally broken ground for construction of its first U.S. manufacturing plant in Pleasant Prairie, more than three years after initially announcing its plans. The first phase of the project will be around 500,000 square feet and employ 385 when completed in 2022. Future expansion phases could bring employment to more than 1,000. The company is investing more than $300 million in the initial construction of the campus.
16. Giannis Antetokounmpo signs “supermax” contract extension with Milwaukee Bucks
[caption id="attachment_512468" align="alignright" width="500"] Giannis Antetokounmpo[/caption]
Oh, yes this is much more than just a sports story. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the winner of the last two NBA MVP awards, is one of the biggest sports stars in the world. Set to become a free agent in 2021, he could have chosen to play anywhere. He decided to stay in Milwaukee with the team that drafted him.
The five-year, $228.2 million contract extension will keep Giannis in Milwaukee through 2026. As long as Giannis is on their roster, the Bucks should remain one of the best teams in the NBA and a championship contender. That means, once fans can again attend games, Bucks games at Fiserv Forum should be consistent sell-outs for the next 6 years, bringing big crowds downtown that will spend money at bars, restaurants and hotels.
Giannis and those crowds will keep the Deer District buzzing around Fiserv Forum and should help the Bucks attract more development there.
In addition, the city will benefit from the media attention that Giannis and the Bucks will continue to get. That provides some glitz and glamour for a smaller Midwestern city that some think is in the middle of flyover country. Giannis helps Milwaukee build its brand as a great place to be.
17. Road America gets NASCAR Cup Series race
[caption id="attachment_513159" align="alignright" width="500"] Aerial photo of Road America. Photo from Road America's website.[/caption]
One more sports story, with significant business impact. NASCAR announced this year that it will bring a Cup Series race to Road America, the 4-mile-long road racing course near Elkhart Lake in Sheboygan County. Many of auto racings biggest stars have competed at Road America, which opened in 1955, but now the top series in American stock car racing is coming, the most popular circuit for the sport in this country.
NASCAR has held Xfinity Series races (NASCAR’s second-tier series) at Road America since 2010. Getting NASCAR’s Cup Series is a huge upgrade for Road America. It’s like going from having a AAA baseball team to a Major League Team.
This brings another major sporting event to southeastern Wisconsin, which should attract auto racing fans from far and wide, and will provide a nice tourism boost for Sheboygan County.
There you have it, the biggest local business stories of 2020. If you want to hear more about my thoughts on these stories, click on the BizTimes MKE Podcast link below. Otherwise, that’s it. I’ve had it with 2020.
Here’s to a happier, healthier and more prosperous 2021. Happy New Year!