This summer was going to be Milwaukee’s “coming out” party. With the Democratic National Convention coming to town in July, the Milwaukee Bucks poised to play for a championship, the rest of the country—even the world—would have a chance to see Milwaukee in a different way. As a city on the rise; as a community that never fails to surprise its visitors; as a place that turns new arrivals into the city’s biggest cheerleaders. It would be our chance to drive a stake through the heart of cringe-worthy, decades-long associations. Milwaukee: the home of Laverne and Shirley. Milwaukee: the home of Jeffrey Dahmer.
The DNC convention and the NBA playoffs have yet to be canceled. But the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic is real and makes you wonder. Will the coronavirus cause Milwaukee to miss its moment? More disturbing, could it reverse a new momentum in the city and exacerbate our most difficult challenges?
In a world of social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and ventilator shortages, those questions rightfully pale in comparison to life and death matters, and questions about how to deal with a serious public health threat. But in addition to thoughtful planning and strong civic leadership, a city’s destiny is determined by a fair amount of serendipity, or at the very least, good timing. Before the coronavirus hit, Milwaukee was poised for a very special summer.
The impact of the current health threat is already being felt. Summerfest is moving to September. Plans to expand the city’s convention center have been delayed. But the DNC and a potential championship run by the Bucks—in the same summer—have the potential to be a generational gamechanger for the city. The immediate effect is obvious. Both would pump millions of dollars into the local economy. But they also offer the city a long-awaited chance to rebrand itself.
A national political convention would bring tens of thousands of visitors to the city. Already, the convention has paid dividends. Other large organizations are now looking at Milwaukee as a potential convention site.
The Bucks play on an international stage and are led by an other-worldly talent who traces his roots to Greece and Africa. To millions around the world, Milwaukee is no longer the home of Dahmer. It’s the home of Giannis. Ask Oklahoma City, which lured the Seattle Supersonics to the Plains, about the branding impact a professional sports team can have on a city.
Together, the convention and an NBA championship have the potential to change perceptions about our city. Their loss, at this moment in our history, would be enormous if completely understandable.
But perhaps more troubling is the health crisis’ potential impact on what could be described as a fragile and selective renaissance in our city. Thousands of small businesses are at risk. Large manufacturers are hardly immune from a global pandemic and economic downturn. While some neighborhoods in the city prosper, others struggle. We have serious challenges even in the best of times.
One need only look at the impact of the Great Recession on Milwaukee to wonder how it would respond to another sharp economic downturn. The city recovered from the last recession more slowly than many other cities. It took more than five years for retail and residential hot spots like the Third Ward to return to the kind of activity that preceded the 2008 downturn. Residential property values only recently began recovering. Even before the coronavirus’ impact, the city faced daunting fiscal challenges in the next several years. Both the city and surrounding metro area have been in a no- or slow-growth population mode.
Still, Milwaukee has overcome challenges in its past. Like the Great Recession, this crisis will end, and lessons learned then will no doubt help us now. We will find new, creative ways to meet the needs of our community and our future course will be charted in no small part by a group of young community leaders who are eager to move the city forward.
As we hunker down in these challenging times, we all wish for a swift end to this health crisis and some return to normalcy. Lives and livelihoods are in the balance. And so is the opportunity for the city to recast itself in the national conversation. Let’s hope this won’t be remembered as the lost summer, the summer of what might have been.