"I’m sad for Milwaukee": Local business owners complain that the upcoming RNC is already "a failure"

The city hoped the convention would generate economic activity, but a dearth of event bookings has raised concerns

Published June 27, 2024 1:41PM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump walks off the plane at the Philadelphia International Airport on June 22, 2024 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump walks off the plane at the Philadelphia International Airport on June 22, 2024 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Milwaukee has accomplished something rare: winning bids to host a major party convention during two presidential elections in a row. In 2020, they were supposed to host the Democratic National Convention, but the outbreak of COVID-19 scotched the event. Now, in 2024, Milwaukee residents are worried that the Republican National Convention, set to take place from July 15 to 18, will also be a disappointment, according to The Recombobulation Arena, a Milwaukee-based online publication.

Cities typically clamor for the privilege of hosting a party's convention, anticipating that the incoming crowd of politicos and journalists will have a positive economic impact. One Milwaukee-based business owner earlier posited that the RNC could infuse $200 million into the city's economy, a claim later touted by Republican National Committee officials as well. Now, less than a month before the RNC, business owners and officials say they are not seeing the economic promise in reality.

“We were sold a storyline of how this is going to go, and basically it didn't go anything at all like the storyline that we were sold,” Gary Witt, president and CEO of the Pabst Theater Group, told The Recombobulation Arena.

Iconic Milwaukee venues like the Pabst Theater and Riverside Theater in downtown, as well as the Vivarium and The Fitzgerald in the city's East Side, will likely remain empty during the convention, according to Witt. He added that Pabst Theater Group heard the same dismal prospects from "everyone else in town." The blame, he said, lies entirely with the RNC for overpromising and underdelivering.

There’s no one taking responsibility to try to make it any better. They’re now backing away from it and trying to say, ‘we never promised you anything,'” he continued, characterizing RNC planning as "underwhelming" and "a failure."

As hopes for an RNC boon dwindle, some businesses and venues are pivoting to other events. The Rave, cutting its losses, will now host a concert featuring the band Thirty Seconds to Mars, with venue co-owner Leslie West telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel there’s been “silence” on booking for the RNC.

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Restaurants also have to contend with the prospect of losing business as the convention puts much of the city off limits to regular customers seeking to avoid RNC attendees, who appear to be uninterested in booking private events. Lupi & Iris, a finalist for best new U.S. restaurant by the James Beard Foundation in 2023, closed its books for reservations for the week of the convention, but changed course once they realized no surge in business was forthcoming.

"There are not as many inquiries as hoped, and in general terms, there is not a lot of excitement around the convention," a spokesperson from Lupi & Iris told The Recombobulation Arena. "I’m sad for Milwaukee. We really wanted this. We really wanted to shine. We were really excited to host these events.”

Gregory León, a James Beard finalist, chef and owner of Amilinda in downtown Milwaukee, expressed similar concerns. "I have a feeling this is going to be a business killer,” he said, adding that, like Witt, he was told that the reservations would come flooding in.

Witt posited that the impending nomination of Donald Trump might have been a factor in causing their woes.

"The RNC is having a difficult time, I think, getting funding for a lot of their events, because once their candidate was announced — and this isn’t me saying this as my political choice — he is known for being divisive, and that’s created a difficulty in them raising money,” he said. “And last time I checked, conventions are built by other people’s money, so if people aren’t willing to give money, then they're going to have a hard time hosting events in town.”

By Nicholas Liu

Nicholas (Nick) Liu is a News Fellow at Salon. He grew up in Hong Kong, earned a B.A. in History at the University of Chicago, and began writing for local publications like the Santa Barbara Independent and Straus News Manhattan.

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