Will the Republican convention help Milwaukee businesses?

Will the Republican convention help Milwaukee businesses?

Will the Republican convention help Milwaukee businesses?


MILWAUKEE – With thousands of Republican delegates, elected officials, lobbyists, protesters and former President Donald Trump set to descend on Milwaukee for next week’s Republican National Convention, it could mean a financial windfall for local businesses and add prominence to the city.

Restaurants are stocking up on food and bars are extending their hours, taking advantage of a new state law that allows them to stay open until 4 a.m. during the event.

Civic boosters who prepared for the 2020 Democratic National Convention, only to have it moved largely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, say they’re grateful for all the attention, despite Milwaukee being a city solid democrat.

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“It’s not red and blue — it’s green for us,” said Ryan Amundson, senior director of communications at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

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Alison Prange, chief operating officer of the RNC Host Committee, said the convention is expected to attract 50,000 visitors and generate an estimated $200 million in direct and indirect economic impact, with additional benefits that will be felt for years to come.

But just days before the convention kicks off with a “Red, White and Beer” welcome party with country singer Trace Adkins, all is not entirely rosy. Some restaurants are reporting far fewer advance reservations than expected. As of May, hotel reservations were lower than in July 2023, although the Visit Milwaukee travel agency said Republican state delegation reservations were still being finalized and major downtown hotels appeared to be full, at prices at least double the regular rates.

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Meanwhile, some business owners and employees worry about the cost and hassle of large crowds and security restrictions, in addition to the potential for violence or property damage, given the volatile political climate.

After months of preparation, business owners near the Fiserv Forum basketball arena — the convention’s main venue — and the newly expanded Baird Center next door are in the final stages of preparation for an unprecedented political event in the city.

Areas around the convention center are designated as “yellow” and “red” zones. While the yellow zone is open to pedestrians and bicycles, vehicles will be subject to control. The red zone, officially called the Restricted Pedestrian Perimeter, is only accessible by those with credentials and tickets through the pedestrian checkpoints. No taxis or food deliveries are allowed in this area.

More than 100 vendors will be set up throughout the convention at the Baird Center. Other businesses in the area are preparing as best they can for an expected influx of customers.

Doc’s Smokehouse, an expansive barbecue restaurant filled with pork accessories and bourbon barrels, has been around for decades. But for owner Brent Brashier, a big unknown is how he’ll manage the crowd that gathers in the Deer neighborhood, where the Fiserv Forum is located.

“I’ve been in this business a long time,” Brashier said. “I worked Super Bowls, Formula 1, in Austin, Texas. I’ve handled a lot of big events, but we don’t have a litmus test’ for an event like the convention.

He’s not worried, though, adding, “I’m thinking Republicans, bourbon and barbecue should do pretty well.”

At the Swinging Door Exchange, bartender Charlie Kawcynzski said the owners have created a new breakfast menu for guests and extended bar hours.

Mader’s, a fourth-generation German restaurant in business since 1913 that abuts the red zone, is expanding its hours to serve large parties, said bar manager Jackie Porrett. Instead of being limited to 11:30am – 8:00pm, diners can have breakfast starting at 7:30am, dinner anytime until midnight, and snacks until 3:00am.

Other businesses, such as Canary Coffee Bar in the yellow zone, are more in a hanging mode. The cafe has restricted its menu, hoping to avoid customers waiting long for food and bothering vendors.

“We rip all our food,” said barista Lex Prevost. “We don’t make enough profit at the end of the day. We also don’t want to disrupt our relationship with our bakers because they would have to come here at 2, 3 or 4 in the morning going through a checkpoint.”

Businesses receive crowds

Milwaukee has long been known as a Democratic stronghold, home to many union workers and with a history rooted in socialism. In 2020, President Joe Biden garnered 194,661 votes, or 78.83% of the total votes cast, to Trump’s 48,414.

But many are happy to host the convention, regardless of their personal politics.

At Major Goolsby’s, bar manager Drew Olsen is surrounded by Green Bay Packers signs, Milwaukee Bucks posters and other sports memorabilia. Just outside the entrance, a bench with a bronze Albert Einstein is draped with an American flag, and outside a painted Uncle Sam sign invites potential customers to “party with Major Goolsby.”

“It’s a political convention and which side of the aisle it really doesn’t matter,” Olsen said. “I come here with a lot of people and you want to welcome them with open arms.”

For many, it is also a chance to innovate. Brashier is adding a beer garden to the parking lot connected to Doc’s Smokehouse. Andrew Fish, whose State Street Pizza Pub has been leased by the Republican National Committee, plans to send his sons to the news trucks stationed around the convention armed with pizzas to sell and has ordered mugs with custom RNC artwork.

“I agree with the two governing rules of the bar. We don’t talk about politics and we don’t talk about religion,” Fish said. “I try to make sure they have the best experience here.”

The convention comes on top of other big recent events and developments in Milwaukee’s thriving downtown. The Milwaukee Bucks’ 2021 NBA Playoff success raised the city’s national profile, and last year saw the return of the popular NASCAR Truck Series after a 14-year hiatus. The Baird Center was recently expanded, and civic leaders say Milwaukee’s star continues to rise as a top tourism and convention destination in the Midwest.

“This place has just gone through a massive renaissance in the last 20 years that I’ve been here, it’s really an incredible place to be,” Kawczynski said.

Security is a concern

Employees working at businesses in security zones had to pass federal background checks and obtain credentials to enter the zone, allowing them access to security zones through designated checkpoints.

Some worry about what the influx of security measures, including an increased police presence, will mean for residents, especially after a recent murder near the Fiserv Forum in an incident unrelated to the convention.

Dvontaye L. Mitchell, 43, was killed June 30 outside the Hyatt Regency Hotel while being detained by security after allegedly entering a women’s restroom.

“And this happened on a slow Sunday,” said Juston Calvert, general manager of yellow-zoned Copper Bar and Restaurant. “What’s going to happen when a bunch of this happens?”

Regardless of the concerns, companies are ready and waiting to see how the convention plays out.

“Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, I think it’s exciting to have all these people in this little corner of Milwaukee,” Brashier said. “It’s going to be the center of the media universe for a few days in July.”

Sylvie Kirsch and Jonathan Hoffman are graduate students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Sylvie Kirsch and Jonathan Hoffman are graduate students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.