Viewpoints: The biggest local business stories of 2021

The crowd in the Deer District for Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

Last updated on January 7th, 2022 at 09:51 am

After an incredibly difficult year for all of us in 2020, 2021 was clearly better, right?

It was certainly still a year with significant challenges, including a pandemic that just won’t end, but also some exciting moments and reasons to cheer for southeastern Wisconsin.

It’s time to take a final look back at 2021, with my annual review of the biggest local business stories of the year (you can also check out my lists for the biggest local business stories of 2020, 2019201820172016 and 2015).

So here they are, my picks for the 20 biggest southeastern Wisconsin business stories of 2021 (in descending order):

20. COVID-19 rages on

OK, let’s get this one out of the way first. The COVID-19 pandemic continues nearly two years since it came to the U.S. and it remains a cloud over the economy. At the beginning of the year, with the availability of vaccines, many hoped to see the pandemic come to an end this year. COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin fell dramatically from a 7-day average of more than 6,500 new cases per day in November 2020 to fewer than 100 new cases per day in late June. Many businesses that were forced to suspend, reduce or drastically alter operations in 2020, such as restaurants, movie theaters and live events, were able to return to normal operations. However, the arrival of the Delta variant and vaccine hesitancy by some led to a resurgence in COVID-19 cases in the second half of the year. Recently, the 7-day average for new cases in Wisconsin has exceeded 3,600 per day. The state’s hospitals are slammed with patients and the highly-contagious Omicron variant is now taking hold in the state. Hopefully the spike from Omicron is short-lived.

19. Several airlines add service at Mitchell International

Passenger traffic at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport improved significantly this year, with an increase of 67.5% from January through November, year-over-year. But, this year’s traffic is still 35.6% below passenger levels in 2019, pre-pandemic. Still, the rebound in air travel helped to attract several additions to passenger air service in Milwaukee as several airlines added additional flights and/or new destinations. Most of the new destinations are geared for leisure travelers as that segment of the market showed improvement this year, while business travel still languishes. Four airlines entered the Milwaukee market, or announced plans to do so: Sprint, Jet Blue, Sun Country and Contour.

18. BRP to hire 175 at former Evinrude plant in Sturtevant

Less than two years after ending production of Evinrude outboard engines and laying off hundreds, Quebec-based BRP is seeking to hire 175 people at its Sturtevant facility. Earlier this month the company said it had 315 employees at its Sturtevant campus. It was looking to fill 50 more positions by the end of the year and another 125 positions at the beginning of 2022. Most of the jobs will be in direct labor, assembly, material handling and shipyard material handling.

17. Indoor music venue complex planned near Summerfest grounds

Rendering of the new music venue in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. (Rendering: Eppstein Uhen Architects)

Madison-based Frank Productions announced plans to build a new indoor venue complex that would host concerts and events year-round at a site next to the Summerfest grounds in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. Frank Productions said the project would involve two venues, one with a capacity of 800 and the other with a capacity of 4,000. Construction is scheduled to begin early next year, with the facility projected to open after Summerfest 2023, pending approvals. Concert industry giant Live Nation has a controlling interest in Frank Productions, which could help the complex attract more artists to Milwaukee.

16. ABB plans new HQ for its U.S. motion business, in New Berlin

Switzerland-based ABB Inc. this year revealed plans for a large campus in New Berlin for its U.S. motion business, which could house nearly 700 employees by 2025. The new facility would include an automated manufacturing and assembly plant, research and development labs, a customer experience and training center and a customer service center. The new plant would be built at 18200 W. Lincoln Ave. and would serve as the headquarters for ABB’s U.S. motion business, which manufacturers drives, motors, generators, mechanical power transmission products and digital powertrain solutions for a variety of industries including mining, power and oil and gas.

15. Saputo plans facility with 600 jobs in Franklin

Canada-based dairy company Saputo Inc. this year unveiled plans to construct an approximately 340,000-square-foot facility and employ about 600 people in Franklin. The Saputo plant is to be built southwest of West Oakwood Road and South 27th Street, in Franklin’s new business park.

14. Roundy’s distribution center shooting

On March 16, a 41-year-old Wauwatosa man shot and killed 39-year-old Kevin Schneider of Milwaukee and 51-year-old Kevin Kloth of Germantown at the Roundy’s distribution warehouse in Oconomowoc. The gunman shot and killed himself several hours later following a car chase by police. Investigators believe Schneider and Kloth were targeted by the gunman, but they were unable to determine a motive for the shootings and closed the investigation. All three of the men were co-workers at the warehouse.

13. Construction begins on the expansion of the Wisconsin Center

A Rvsdesign and Eppstein Uhen Architects rendering of the Wisconsin Center expansion.
A Rvsdesign and Eppstein Uhen Architects rendering of the Wisconsin Center expansion.

When the Wisconsin Center, downtown Milwaukee’s convention center, was first built it was expected to be a three-phase project. The first was completed in 1998, and the second in 2000, creating a facility with more than 188,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space, along with a 37,500-square-foot ballroom. However, the third phase of the project was delayed for years and the facility increasingly struggled to compete with larger facilities in other cities to attract conventions. Finally, construction began this year on a $420 million expansion project for the Wisconsin Center, which will be complete in early 2024. The project will increase the exhibit hall by 112,000 square feet and will allow the Wisconsin Center to host larger events or more than one significant event simultaneously.

12. ‘Johnny V’ pushing plans for Wauwatosa tower

Drew Tower. Rendering: Kahler Slater
Drew Tower. Rendering: Kahler Slater

Mo’s Restaurants owner John “Johnny V” Vassallo first unveiled plans in 2020 for a 25-story, 354-unit apartment tower southwest of Bluemond Road and Highway 100 (across the street from his Mo’s Irish Pub restaurant) in Wauwatosa. But city officials rejected those plans, saying the building was too large for the area, which includes single family home neighborhoods. Earlier this year, Vassallo scaled the plans back to a 20-story building, but then withdrew them when it was clear support was lacking. Later in the year, he submitted a new plan for a 28-story building at the site with only 65 apartments and 80,000 square feet of office and medical space. The latest plans, with a much lower residential unit density, comply with existing zoning for the site, so they are only subject to design review. However, some neighbors remain upset about the project and the design review is ongoing.

11. 32-story apartment tower planned in Historic Third Ward

Rendering: Solomon Cordwell Buenz
Rendering: Solomon Cordwell Buenz

Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward is an historic district of warehouse buildings, typically no more than 8 stories tall. The neighborhood has strict rules for new buildings so that they fit in with the existing historic structures. However, an exception is the site southwest of Water Street and St. Paul Avenue, along the Milwaukee River, at the edge of the Third Ward. Currently used as a parking lot, the site has been identified by city officials as a gateway site for the neighborhood, where a taller building would be allowed. Attracted to that opportunity, Houston-based Hines this year unveiled plans for a 32-story apartment tower with 295 units and first floor retail space, for the site. Construction is expected to begin in 2022.

10. Bradley Symphony Center opens

The $89 million project to transform the former Warner Grand Theatre (which was built in 1930 as an opulent movie theater and closed in 1995) into the Bradley Symphony Center, the new home for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, was completed this year. The project created an absolutely stunning facility and a new cultural gem for Milwaukee. It also adds to the revitalization of the west side of downtown Milwaukee.

9. Ryder Cup a huge success

Grandstands at the 1st tee came alive before sunrise with fans eager to sit front and center.
Grandstands at the 1st tee came alive before sunrise with fans eager to sit front and center.

After a one-year delay, due to COVID-19, the Ryder Cup was held in September at Whistling Straits, north of Sheboygan. It was a huge success, not only for victorious Team USA, but also for Kohler Co. (which owns the golf course) and Wisconsin. Nice September weather and the beautiful setting along Lake Michigan provided incredible visuals seen by an international audience, exposing viewers to the best Wisconsin has to offer. The economic impact of the event is estimated at $135 million. The Ryder Cup was a capstone for Kohler Co., which previously hosted three PGA Championships at Whistling Straits, a U.S. Senior Open at Whistling Straits and two U.S. Women’s Opens at its Blackwolf Run course in the village of Kohler. CEO David Kohler says the company will host more championship events at some point.

8. 100 East building in downtown Milwaukee goes into foreclosure

The COVID-19 pandemic is putting severe stress on the office real estate market as many employees continue to work from home and employers reconsider their office space needs. In the middle of that environment, the 35-story 100 East office tower, once one of downtown Milwaukee’s most prestigious addresses, went into foreclosure this year. The pandemic isn’t the only challenge facing this building. New class A office buildings, including 833 East, BMO Tower and The Huron Building are putting pressure on older buildings, like 100 East, which likely needs significant investment to upgrade it and make it more competitive.

7. Construction of The Couture finally begins

Night view from North Lincoln Memorial Drive and East Clybourn Street. Rendering: Rinka
Night view rendering of The Couture from North Lincoln Memorial Drive and East Clybourn Street. Rendering: Rinka

Plans for The Couture, a 44-story luxury apartment tower at the former Downtown Transit Center site at Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Street, were first unveiled in 2012. In addition to being the tallest residential building in the state, the dramatic project called for retail space, pedestrian bridges improving connections to the lakefront and a new transit center with stops for the streetcar and buses. But the project ran into numerous problems including a lengthy fight over the development rights of the site and challenges obtaining financing. There were many critics in the community who felt the county, which sold the site to developer Barrett Lo Visionary Development, should pull the plug. The project lingered for so long, many felt it would never be built. But Barrett Lo finally obtained financing for the project and broke ground this year. Construction is scheduled to be complete in late 2023. Click here to follow the construction progress.

6. Foxconn gets first Wisconsin tax credits

Foxconn’s Mount Pleasant campus in August 2021. Photo credit: Curtis Waltz,

For the first time, Foxconn Technology Group has qualified for tax credits from the state of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. verified that the company created 579 jobs and made a capital investment of $266 million at its complex in Mount Pleasant, which qualifies the company for $2.2 million in job creation tax credits and $26.6 million in capital investment tax credits, according to numerous media reports. The company had failed to qualify for tax credits in previous years. The state’s original deal with the company called for up to $2.85 billion if the company created 13,000 jobs and invested $10 billion in capital improvements. Under the original deal the company was to build a complex for manufacturing large video screens. But the company has gone in a different direction, instead making other products including high-tech data servers. The company has still provided little information to the public about what it is making in Mount Pleasant. Foxconn considered the complex for an electric vehicle deal, but chose a plant in Ohio instead. Gov. Tony Evers administration initially refused to approve tax credits for the company under the original deal, which was signed by former Gov. Scott Walker, because it said the company’s change in what it’s making in Mount Pleasant essentially voided that deal. Evers reached a new agreement with the company and the tax credits are being allocated under that new deal.

5. Johnson Controls to abandon downtown Milwaukee

Johnson Controls downtown Milwaukee complex. Image from Google.

In a major blow to downtown Milwaukee, Johnson Controls announced it would shut down its downtown campus over the next two years and move about 1,260 employees from there to its operating headquarters campus in Glendale. The company is technically based in Ireland for tax-saving purposes. The company’s decision to leave downtown Milwaukee is stunning considering a few years ago it was considering plans for a 50-story office building downtown (according to a Milwaukee alderman). Kenosha-based Bear Development purchased Johnson Controls’ 430,000-square-foot downtown campus and is working on redevelopment plans.

4. Southridge Mall faces foreclosure, redevelopment planned for its former Boston Store

The evolution of brick-and-mortar retail continues and it seems the pandemic is only accelerating the pace of that change. Southridge Mall in Greendale is the latest example. In recent years the mall has lost three of its five anchor stores: Boston Store (which went out of business), Kohl’s (which moved to the 84South development) and Sears. Southridge now faces foreclosure as it owes more than $121 million to its lender. The mall’s owner, Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group, and its lender have reached an agreement to move into a foreclosure process, so the mall could be sold in a sheriff’s auction.

Meanwhile, Barrett Lo Visionary Development recently gained approval from the village for its plans to redevelop the former Boston Store building at Southridge into up to 790 apartments and 50,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the entire Southridge Mall site.

3. Seeking talent, Milwaukee Tool establishing an office in downtown Milwaukee, but also in Chicago

Rendering of Milwaukee Tool's downtown Milwaukee office. Rendering: Stephen Perry Smith Architects
Rendering of Milwaukee Tool’s downtown Milwaukee office. Rendering: Stephen Perry Smith Architects

Milwaukee Tool is growing at an astonishing pace (it had 64.1% global growth in the first half of the year and its annual revenue could exceed $6 billion this year), which is tremendously good news for southeastern Wisconsin. This year the company announced and then moved forward with plans to acquire and renovate the former Assurant building in downtown Milwaukee. The company has indicated it could eventually have 2,000 employees at that office. Renovation work is ongoing and the office will open in 2022. Based in Brookfield, Milwaukee Tool is struggling to find the employees it needs to keep up with its incredible growth pace. The company is establishing the downtown Milwaukee office to help it attract that talent, but is also opening an office in Chicago for the same reason. That represents a missed opportunity for the Milwaukee area as those jobs could have been created here if the company was able to find enough talent here to fill them.

2. Generac grows with booming demand, seizes acquisition opportunities in clean energy space

With people spending more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic and more frequent power outages, especially from severe weather, demand just keeps growing for Town of Genesee-based generator manufacturer Generac. The company, which joined the S&P 500 this year, ranked #845 on the Fortune 1000 list this year, up from #946 a year ago. It’s revenue for this year is on pace for $3.7 billion, more than six times its 2008 total.

Generac is seizing new opportunities to continue growing its business. It has made a series of acquisitions, including half a dozen this year, to position it for an electrical grid more focused on clean and distributed energy.

Also this year, Generac acquired the former American Family Insurance office building along I-94 in Pewaukee. It will have 300 employees at the facility, to serve as its customer contact center with sales and support teams and a portion of its marketing team.

In September, the company said it planned to invest $53 million across its Wisconsin facilities, including the Pewaukee facility, as part of a plan expected to create 700 jobs in the state by 2024.

1. Bucks win NBA championship

The Milwaukee Bucks victory in the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns was obviously the biggest sports story of the year in Milwaukee, but it was also the biggest business story of the year for the region.

After a disappointing 2019-20 season that was suspended at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and then later completed in a “bubble” environment at Disney World in Orlando, where the Bucks were swept out of the playoffs by the Miami Heat, this year the Bucks captured their first title since 1971.

VISIT Milwaukee estimated that the Bucks championship playoff run had a $57.6 million economic impact on the area as fans packed Fiserv Forum and huge crowds, eager to be part of the excitement, gathered outside of the arena to watch games on large video screens. After so many events had been cancelled in 2020 and earlier this year, due to the pandemic, the Bucks brought the community together in a big way and it was a boon for downtown Milwaukee.

In many ways the championship was the pinnacle of the transformation of the once moribund franchise under the ownership group led by Marc Lasry, Wes Edens, Jamie Dinan and Mike Fascitelli. Now that ownership group has an opportunity to build on the championship with new marketing opportunities for the Bucks and development momentum for the Deer District, the 30-acre area around Fiserv Forum that the Bucks are developing. Construction for a 205-room Marriott hotel began this year.

Let’s hope for more big wins for the Bucks, Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin in 2022. Happy New Year!

Aerial photo of Milwaukee Bucks 2021 NBA championship parade on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee. Photo shot by Jon Elliott of MKE Drones LLC.
Aerial photo of Milwaukee Bucks 2021 NBA championship parade on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee. Photo shot by Jon Elliott of MKE Drones LLC.

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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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