Viewpoints: The biggest local business stories of 2022

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, RNC chair Ronna McDaniel and local host committee chair Reince Priebus sign the official bid for Milwaukee to host the 2024 RNC. Credit: TMJ4 News live stream

Last updated on January 3rd, 2023 at 02:20 pm

With inflation at its highest rate in the United States since the early 1980s, including Milwaukee area gas prices that briefly soared above $5 a gallon but later fell to below $3 a gallon, and declines in U.S. GDP during the first half of the year, ongoing supply chain challenges and a tight labor market, there were plenty of economic issues to be concerned about in 2022. During the year many felt the U.S. economy was either in a recession, or headed toward one in 2023.

But despite those challenges, and others, there were several bright spots in the local economic landscape this year.

It’s time to take a final look back at 2022, 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 2021, 20202019201820172016 and 2015).

So here they are, my picks for the 20 biggest southeastern Wisconsin business stories of 2022 (in descending order):

20. Milwaukee Brewing Company sells business and physical assets, intellectual property to different buyers

In March, after 25 years in business, Milwaukee Brewing Company’s board of directors announced plans to seek potential buyers for the business and all of its physical assets. In September, Chicago-based brewery incubator Pilot Project Brewing officially emerged as the buyer of Milwaukee Brewing Company’s 70,000-square-foot production facility at 1128 N. 9th St. in downtown Milwaukee, as well as the attached Bottlehouse 42 restaurant. Eagle Park Brewing & Distilling Company acquired Milwaukee Brewing Company’s intellectual property, recipes and branding.

19. Potawatomi making major investment in Milwaukee casino

Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee in May unveiled plans for a $100 million renovation to the casino’s third floor. The 120,000-square-foot project will create new gaming, food and entertainment experiences. That will include 1,800 slot machine stations, including a new bar with 28 bar-top “slot seats” (a first for Potawatomi) and an array of 4K televisions. The project will also include the addition of Rock & Brews, a restaurant whose co-founders include Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of the rock band KISS. In addition, earlier in the year Potawatomi reached an agreement with the state to add sports gambling to its casinos.

18. Menominee tribe trying again to develop casino in Kenosha

The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin announced in July that it is partnering with Hard Rock International to relaunch its effort to build an entertainment center and casino in Kenosha.

The Menominee Tribe and Hard Rock, a hotel, restaurant and casino company that is owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, previously tried to develop a massive entertainment complex and casino at the former Dairyland Greyhound Park site in Kenosha. However, those plans were shot down by then Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

Now the Menominee Tribe and Hard Rock are making plans for a different site in Kenosha, located southwest of I-94 and 60th Street. Gov. Tony Evers has not said if he would support the new Kenosha casino plans. The new plans also need approval from the federal government.

17. Construction begins on Third Ward apartment tower

Houston-based Hines is building a 31-story apartment tower at 333 N. Water St. (Rendering courtesy of Solomon Cordwell Buenz)

Houston-based real estate development, investment and management firm Hines began construction of a 31-story apartment tower at 333 N. Water St. in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. The company purchased the 0.8-acre site in September for $6 million and closed on a $109 million construction loan for the project on the same day. The building will have 333 apartments and 11,750 square feet of ground floor retail space. Construction is expected to be complete in 2024.

16. Bayshore revitalization progresses

Dallas-based Cypress Equities continues to make progress in revitalizing Bayshore in Glendale. Omaha, Nebraska-based ACX Cinemas announced that it will reopen Bayshore’s 42,951 square-foot movie theater, bowling alley and restaurant space next summer. West Hollywood-based Kids Empire said it will open a children’s entertainment venue next summer in the former LensCrafters space on the northern end of the property. Regus will rejoin Bayshore’s tenant roster, with plans to open a redesigned co-working space at the Glendale town center in spring 2023. Luxury apartments are under construction at Bayshore, four buildings with more than 300 units will be completed in 2023.

15. Northridge Mall saga goes on and on and…

The sad Northridge Mall saga dragged on in 2022. The mall, located on the far northwest side of Milwaukee, closed in 2003. Milwaukee officials want to see it torn down. Vandals have set numerous fires at the property, causing the Milwaukee Fire Department to expend resources and put firefighters at risk, all for a blighted and long-vacant property. China-based U.S. Black Spruce Enterprises Group purchased the former mall in 2008 and said it wanted to turn it into an Asian marketplace. Those plans have never moved forward and the condition of the structure continues to decay. The city has fought to have the structure raised, but Black Spruce has resisted, resulting in a three-year court fight over the matter. The company now owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for failing to comply with court orders to property shore up the building and provide 24-7 security on the premises.

14. Arrival of Viking highlights record cruise ship season for Milwaukee

Viking Octantis

Eight different cruise ships made 33 port calls this year in Milwaukee, including the new Viking Octantis. The cruise ships brought 13,610 visitors to Milwaukee – a number that shows a drastic increase over the fewer than 1,000 people that arrived here via cruise ships in 2018. The 33 cruise ship port calls and 13,610 passengers are both cruise season records for Port Milwaukee. VISIT Milwaukee, said the economic impact of this year’s cruise season in Milwaukee is over $3.1 million. Over 27 different businesses benefitted from visits from tourists, who were chauffeured around different attractions by Great Lakes Shore Excursions.

13. Komatsu opens new Milwaukee headquarters complex

Komatsu Mining Corp. in June marked the official opening of its $285 million headquarters and manufacturing facility in Milwaukee’s Harbor District. Komatsu’s 58-acre South Harbor campus includes 170,000 square feet of office space, a 20,000-square-foot museum and training center and 410,000 square feet of manufacturing space. The project was announced in 2018, and construction began in fall of 2020. The campus relocates and combines the company’s longtime West Milwaukee manufacturing facility, located at 4400 W. National Ave., and office space at the Honey Creek Corporate Center. The campus has the capacity for 1,000 total employees.

12. The Rep unveils plans to rebuild its downtown Milwaukee theater complex

Main stage rendering from Eppstein Uhen Architects.
Main stage rendering from Eppstein Uhen Architects.

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater plans to build a $75 million theater complex in place of its existing Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex at 108 E. Wells St. in downtown Milwaukee. So far it has raised $43 million for the project. That includes a 20-year, $10 million naming rights sponsorship from Associated Bank, for what will be named the Associated Bank Theater Center through 2042.

11. Milwaukee Public Museum unveils plans for new facility, kicks off fundraising campaign

Milwaukee Public Museum rendering for its planned, $240 million new museum building and campus slated to be constructed on a 2.4-acre site at the corner of 6th Street and McKinley Avenue in the Haymarket neighborhood near downtown Milwaukee. (Ennead Architects/Kahler Slater)

In July, the Milwaukee Public Museum unveiled renderings for its planned $240 million new museum building and campus slated to be built on a 2.4-acre site northeast of 6th Street and McKinley Avenue in the Haymarket neighborhood near downtown Milwaukee. Designed by New York City-based Ennead Architects and Milwaukee architecture firm Kahler Slater, the 200,000-square-foot building is designed to be reminiscent of the ancient geological formations in Mill Bluff State Park near Tomah. With $110 million already dedicated to the creation of the new museum, including $40 million from the state of Wisconsin, $45 million from Milwaukee County, and $25 million in private donations by 72 cornerstone donors, the museum kicked off its Wisconsin Wonders capital campaign with a goal of raising the remaining $130 million for the project. Groundbreaking for the building is slated for late 2023, and the new museum is expected to open in 2026.

10. Milwaukee Tool continues massive growth

Milwaukee Tool’s West Bend plant.
Milwaukee Tool’s West Bend plant.

In May, Brookfield-based Milwaukee Tool announced plans to create an additional 1,000 jobs in Wisconsin by 2027. The company said it will invest more than $206 million in the state to expand its existing research and development facilities, address infrastructure needs and provide equipment at its nine locations across the state.

In August, the company hosted a celebration for the opening of its newest manufacturing plant, located in West Bend, marking the first time the company has done manufacturing work in the state since the mid-2000s (other than its Empire Level and Imperial Blades divisions). The company said it would hire 150 workers at the 95,000-square-foot West Bend plant to produce hand tools for the electrical, power utility, plumbing and mechanical trades.

Earlier in the year, the company opened an office at the former Assurant building in downtown Milwaukee, where it could eventually have up to 2,000 employees.

The Milwaukee Tool business saw its sales increase 25.8% in the first half of the year.

9. Crime a major problem

The significant uptick in crime in Milwaukee is not just a societal problem with devastating human consequences, it also causes major problems for businesses in the city, making it harder to attract people to live, work and play there, and harder to attract companies to do business there. So the rising crime rate has economic consequences as well. The city has broken its yearly homicide record for three straight years. Motor vehicle thefts have also become an enormous problem, as Milwaukee had the largest per capita increase in auto thefts in the nation from 2020 to 2021, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Milwaukee is not alone, rising crime is an issue for cities across the country, but it is probably the most important challenge that city officials are facing right now.

8. Iconic business leaders Kohler, Cudahy lost

Herbert V. Kohler Jr.
Herbert V. Kohler Jr.

Wisconsin lost two of its most iconic business leaders in 2022 with the deaths of Herb Kohler and Michael Cudahy.

Herbert V. Kohler Jr., led and transformed the Kohler Co., founded by his grandfather, into a global giant and developed golf courses in Sheboygan County that established the state as an internationally-known golf destination. He died in September at the age of 83.

Michael Cudahy, one of Milwaukee’s most prominent entrepreneurs and philanthropists, died on March 11 at age 97. After building a successful company that he eventually sold to General Electric, Cudahy turned his attention to philanthropy, leaving his stamp on the city most visibly in the opening of Discovery World on Milwaukee’s lakefront. The grandson of meat-packing magnate Patrick Cudahy, Michael Cudahy co-founded Marquette Electronics with Warren Cozzens in 1964. They went on to grow it to a $578 million company by the late 1990s. In 1998, Cudahy, then 74, sold Marquette to GE for $810 million.

Michael Cudahy. Photo shot by Paul Gaertner.
Michael Cudahy. Photo shot by Paul Gaertner.

7. Concert venue complex to be built next to Fiserv Forum

Rendering of FPC Live’s planned music venue complex in the Deer District.
Rendering of FPC Live’s planned music venue complex in the Deer District.
Credit: Eppstein Uhen Architects

Madison-based concert promoter FPC Live plans to build a $50 million indoor concert venue complex next to Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee’s Deer District. Set to break ground this winter for an early 2024 completion, the planned project includes two concert halls – one capped at 4,000 people and the other at 800. FPC Live expects to book 135 shows annually at the new venue complex, drawing artists of all genres and all styles – including those who may have overlooked Milwaukee in the past. 

The company originally planned to build the complex in the Historic Third Ward near the Summerfest grounds, but abandoned those plans in the face of neighborhood opposition. It then shifted to the site near Fiserv Forum. Operators of other local concert venues raised concerns about the project because FPC Live’s parent company, Frank Productions, is majority-owned by live entertainment industry giant Live Nation. They said Live Nation is an industry monopoly that will give the FPC Live complex an unfair advantage over other Milwaukee venues in booking touring acts.

6. Mixed use development with soccer stadium planned downtown

Proposed soccer stadium at the Iron District project. Credit: Kahler Slater, JLG Architects

In May, Grafton-based Kacmarcik Enterprises and Kenosha-based Bear Development announced plans for a $160 million, 11-acre sports and entertainment district in downtown Milwaukee. Called Iron District MKE, it would be developed northeast of the Marquette Interchange on a mostly vacant area. The plans for Iron District MKE include a  8,000-seat soccer stadium that will be home to a USL Championship league professional soccer team and Marquette University’s soccer and lacrosse teams, a 3,500-person indoor concert venue to be operated by Pabst Theater Group and a yet-to-be announced national concert promoter, a 140-room hotel, 99 multi-family housing units, plus retail and restaurants.

5. Fiserv to move its headquarters to downtown Milwaukee

Banking technology company Fiserv announced in October that it will move its corporate headquarters from Brookfield to the HUB640 building at 640 Vel R. Phillips Ave. in downtown Milwaukee. As part of its new headquarters project the company plans to add 250 jobs there over five years. A $40 million investment will be made in the building. According to a source familiar with the deal, those 250 jobs will be new to the region and Fiserv, a Fortune 500 company, will eventually have 780 jobs at its new corporate headquarters in downtown Milwaukee.

4. Harley CEO indicates company plans to repurpose its HQ

Harley-Davidson headquarters
Harley-Davidson Inc.’s headquarters in Milwaukee.

Jochen Zeitz, the chief executive officer of Harley-Davidson, Inc. made waves in October when he told Bloomberg that the company was planning to repurpose its 500,000-square-foot corporate headquarters complex in Milwaukee, which hasn’t fully reopened since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States in March of 2020. The move is an embrace of remote work as Zeitz says he is supporting employees wishes to work from home.

Zeitz later posted a statement on LinkedIn that said “we are proud of our hometown Milwaukee, and we are excited about the ideas we have to invest in our Milwaukee campuses for the future,” but no details have been disclosed publicly about those plans.

According to data from Harley’s Inclusive Stakeholder Management Report, the company had 890 employees at its Milwaukee corporate headquarters in 2021, down from more than 1,062 in 2018. Technically Milwaukee is still the headquarters of Harley-Davidson, but if its headquarters employees no longer need to work here, the company’s economic impact on the community is significantly reduced.

3. The one that got away

One of the biggest economic stories in the United States in 2022 occurred in January, when Intel Corp. announced plans to build a massive semiconductor chip manufacturing complex near Columbus, Ohio, a $20 billion initial investment that could grow to $100 billion a full buildout. Initial employment is expected to be 3,000 jobs.

That’s great, for Ohio, but how is this a Milwaukee area business story? It is because, according to local economic development officials, Intel almost picked southeastern Wisconsin for the project.

According to local economic development officials in Wisconsin, Intel considered numerous locations to build a new chip manufacturing complex in the United States, including an 871-acre site in Mount Pleasant that included 471 acres of vacant land owned by the village that Foxconn has development rights to, but does not include the area south of that where Foxconn has built four buildings, located northeast of I-94 and 1st Street. The site pitched to Intel also included 400 acres of adjacent land owned by a single property owner that had a contract to sell it for the Intel project.

During an evaluation process that lasted several months, Intel gave the Mount Pleasant site serious consideration, according to local economic development officials.

Intel indicated that the Foxconn site was its second choice, behind the Columbus, Ohio area, according to Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

It’s devastating to think of the missed opportunity for southeastern Wisconsin in coming in second place in the contest to land the Intel deal. But local economic development officials hope it shows that the Foxconn site’s location along I-94 between Milwaukee and Chicago and the infrastructure investments made there for Foxconn, which has certainly not lived up to expectations, could eventually attract another major economic development to the site.

2. Tumultuous year for Kohl’s

Menomonee Falls-based Kohl’s Corp. had a rocky year, to say the least. Much like in 2021, activist investor groups, dissatisfied with the company’s performance and its stock price, pushed for changes in company leadership.

The company’s stock price fell from $40.69 at the end of 2021 to $25.08 on Dec. 29, a 62% decline. For the first three quarters of its fiscal year the company’s net income was down 60% and its total revenue was down 6.6%.

Activist investor Macellum Capital Management ran a slate of 10 director candidates against Kohl’s 13 incumbent board directors in an effort to take control of the company and likely pursue a sale of the company. But at Kohl’s annual meeting in May, shareholders voted to re-elect all 13 of its incumbent board directors.

With some investors pushing for the Kohl’s board to consider a possible sale, the company retained Goldman Sachs to engage with potential suitors.

In June the company entered into exclusive negotiations with Ohio-based Franchise Group Inc., which made a $53 per share purchase offer, but the offer was turned down by the Kohl’s board of directors. That offer was reduced from Franchise Group’s original $60 per share offer, but Kohl’s said Franchise Group’s revised offer lacked “definitive financing arrangements to consummate a transaction.” Franchise Group had said it planned to fund its original purchase offer, estimated at $8 billion, with $1 billion from increasing the size of its secured debt facilities and the rest would be “provided on the basis of the real estate assets of Kohl’s Corp.” Franchise Group is the owner and operator of several franchised and “franchisable” businesses, including retail brands Pet Supplies Plus and The Vitamin Shoppe.

Michelle Gass
Michelle Gass

Despite weathering the storm of the board election and turning down the purchase offer from Franchise Group, criticism of the company’s leadership from some of its investors continued. Cleveland-based wealth management firm Ancora Holdings Group LLC called for the removal of Kohl’s board chairman Peter Boneparth and CEO Michelle Gass in a Sept. 22 letter to the board.

Investors seeking a change at the top of Kohl’s finally got their wish. Perhaps fed up with the criticism, Gass stepped down as CEO of Kohl’s on Dec. 2 to become president of San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. With Gass’ departure, the Kohl’s board of directors named board member Tom Kingsbury as interim CEO. He will serve in that role until a permanent successor is named.

Gass wasn’t the only top executive to leave the company this year. Chief technology and supply chain officer Paul Gaffney, chief marketing officer Greg Revelle and chief merchandising officer Doug Howe, also departed.

It will be extremely interesting to see who becomes the new CEO of Kohl’s and what direction that new leader takes the company.

Despite all of the turmoil surrounding the company, Kohl’s announced plans for an impactful local development. This summer, the company announced that it would open a 40,000-square-foot store on the ground floor of the HUB640 building in downtown Milwaukee. The store, scheduled to open in the fall of 2023, is a huge opportunity to boost the downtown retail landscape. Hopefully the company follows through on those plans as it goes through its leadership transition.

1. Milwaukee to host 2024 Republican National Convention

It was stunning when Milwaukee was chosen to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention, an opportunity that is typically reserved for larger cities. But the 2020 DNC turned out to be a big bust for Milwaukee as it was held as an entirely virtual event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The city missed out on the huge economic boost and massive amount of media attention that it was anticipating. Some hoped the DNC would give Milwaukee and do-over and have the city host its 2024 convention. But then Milwaukee was invited to bid for the 2024 Republican National Convention. Using what they learned from bidding on and preparing for the 2020 DNC, Milwaukee’s civic, convention and visitor, business and political leaders worked together to pitch the city to the RNC and Milwaukee was chosen to host its 2024 convention. VISIT Milwaukee estimates the economic impact of the 2024 RNC will be between $180 million to $200 million, but it’s also a huge opportunity to showcase the city on a global stage, said Peggy Williams-Smith, president and chief executive officer of VISIT Milwaukee.

“I think the biggest impact beyond the parties that will be thrown throughout the week, is that there are journalists coming from all over the world. And when they’re not covering the convention floor, they’re going to be exploring our city, and they’re going to be telling stories about our city. That is where we think we come out on top after the convention leaves,” she said.

The $456 million expansion of the Wisconsin Center will be complete in time to be used for the 2024 RNC and the event will help promote Milwaukee as a destination for other conventions, Williams-Smith said.

“To secure this convention the year we open the (convention center) expansion is just huge for us,” she said. “I’ve spoken to my counterparts in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Minneapolis (that have all hosted national RNC conventions). It truly does boost lead generation for other meetings and conventions.”

So there you have it, that’s a wrap for 2022. On to 2023. Wishing for peace and prosperity for you, your business and the Milwaukee area. Happy New Year!

RNC officials toured Fiserv Forum during a site visit earlier this year. Credit: VISIT Milwaukee
– Andrew Weiland is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee
Read the latest issue of STUFF, a BizTimes Media publication highlighting southeastern Wisconsin careers in manufacturing, construction and the trades. Learn more about STUFF here:
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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