Empower Wisconsin | April 23, 2020
By M.D. Kittle and Joshua Waldoch
MADISON — Things are bad and getting worse for Wisconsin’s $22 billion tourism industry.
But Wisconsin Department of Tourism Secretary-designee Sara Meaney is standing by her boss’ plan to slowly reopen Wisconsin — a cure for a gravely ill economy that many argue is worse than the disease.
“Yesterday, Governor Evers released the Badger Bounce Back plan, which clearly outlines phases and important criteria for us to be able to reopen our economy, including steps to ensure our workers and our businesses are prepared to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so,” Meaney wrote Tuesday in an email to Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) and Rep. Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City).
The lawmakers are members of the Governor’s Council on Tourism. They would like the council or any tourism body Meaney deems appropriate to, for the love of God, do something to help the restaurants, hotels, waterparks, fishing resorts, and myriad other tourism-dependent businesses that could find themselves out of business, if the lockdown drags on.
“As I have heard from businesses throughout my district, if the re-opening of the economy is delayed as long as the Governor currently suggests, or longer, a significant percentage of them will not be able to re-open, period,” Jacque wrote in a follow-up letter to Meaney and Council on Tourism Chairman Joe Klimczak.
Urgency doesn’t seem to be the secretary-designee’s speciality. She told the lawmakers that the next meeting of the Governor’s Council on Tourism is scheduled to take place at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism, but the meeting will likely have to be rescheduled “as a result of the public health emergency.”
The Governor’s Conference of Tourism in Madison is slated to begin on May 26, the date Team Evers’ extended emergency lockdown order is supposed to expire.
May 26 is another important date. It’s the day after Memorial Day Weekend — the unofficial kickoff to summer. The tree-day holiday weekend, which generates an estimated $36 billion to the U.S. economy, is massively important to the tourism industry.
But Evers’ social-distancing order and glacially slow plan to reopen the state could mean limited tourism-related businesses are opened by then.
While regional tourism officials who spoke to Empower Wisconsin say it’s important to follow the guidance of health officials during the pandemic, they worry about unprecedented damage to the industry.
“Our hotels have single-digit or teens (percentages) in occupancy,” said Brenda Krainik, director of marketing and communications for the Greater Green Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Leah Hauck, communications director for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau, said the impact “will be detrimental.” The “Waterpark capital of the world,” which generated about $1.2 billion in direct travel spending alone in 2018, is a significant player in Wisconsin’s tourism industry.
Meaney asserts the government can fill the gap. Empower Wisconsin obtained a letter from the secretary-designee urging local tourism officials and businesses to lobby the state Legislature to pass Evers’ original $700 million-plus COVID-19 response package. She advises the lawmakers writing to her to encourage legislative leadership to call the Legislature back into session and deliver more money.
“Will you urge the Legislature to reconvene to provide critical assistance for the tourism industry as proposed by Governor Tony Evers, which includes $150 million for WEDC for small businesses and $5M in tourism marketing grants to kickstart our industry? “ the tourism secretary-designee wrote in her response to Jacque and Tranel.
More government money thrown at the problem isn’t going to cut it, critics say. It’s time for a real plan to open up Wisconsin, and to save the tourism trade, they say.
“(I)t is clear we must do this important work now and come together with a workable plan before businesses of so many types in my area and across the state are forced to close permanently,” Jacque wrote.
Krainik said it’s not for tourism to say when it’s safe to resume business. She’ll leave that up to “the professionals.” But there is a sad reality in play.
“Tourism relies heavily on small business, whether restaurants or retail or attractions. With all of them closed there is nothing virtual that will replace what it means to have visitors come through your door,” the Green Bay tourism official said.