Weekend tournament at Wisconsin Center brings glimmer of hope to area businesses

Posted at 6:05 PM, Mar 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 19:05:09-05

MILWAUKEE — For the first time in nearly a year, the Wisconsin Center set up for a public ticketed event.

Hosting this weekend's volleyball tournament is a step forward following a year that the center's president and CEO Marty Brooks said resulted in a loss of about $25 million and threw staff into uncertainty.

"Most of that is attributable to the loss of the hotel, food, and beverage taxes that we otherwise receive. Because of the downturn in business, those industries were decimated as we are we," said Brooks.

However, this weekend's volleyball tournament at the Wisconsin Center will bring more people back to work in the area. It is the latest sign of a comeback in Milwaukee just as other sites start to reopen to the public.

"We're going from 0 to 60 in a couple of day's time really," said Rich Kirchen, senior reporter at the Milwaukee Business Journal, in an interview Friday.

"I know that they [the Wisconsin Center] is planning on more events, especially in the second half of this year. They are booking dates and certainly by 2022 they would anticipate being pretty much back to normal," said Kirchen. "The bigger question is conventions, will the big conventions or the small conventions come back, and to what extent?"

From restaurants to parking garages and hotels nearby, businesses have struggled through the pandemic.

"Quite frankly I would say it's been crushing," said Nicki Schlederer, business manager at Isaacs Parking. Their parking garage is located across the street from the Wisconsin Center.

"Many times we thought it almost felt like 'man did we make the right call?'" Jose Lazo said as he talked about questioning him and his brother's decision to open Lazo's Taco Shack a block from the Wisconsin Center in December of 2019.

A comeback will not happen overnight, but as the Wisconsin Center joins the list of downtown Milwaukee sites inching toward normalcy.

"We just got a couple of reservations for tomorrow due to the volleyball tournament," said Lazo, who added they are also looking to hire a couple of waitresses to help with more customers.

"We were like 'wow that's fantastic.' Of course, it's with masking and distancing and all those things involved to keep everybody safe, but I was thrilled," said Schlederer.

"We are a stronger organization because of what we have gone through. We're leaner than where we were a year ago. Hopefully over the next several months will be able to change that," said Brooks.

The Wisconsin Center is moving ahead with a major expansion that will almost double its size. Leaders say it will draw even more people when it's done in 2024.

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