By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Brigit Haucke has been in the northern Wisconsin resort business for 20 years. She’s seen a lot of damage done in the last year and a half.
A pandemic, government-ordered lockdowns and restrictions, and a severe worker shortage. It’s been a recipe for disaster for many in Wisconsin’s $13.6 billion tourism industry.
The same governor who battered and bruised Badger State restaurants, lodging and other “nonessential” businesses during his extended lockdowns last year is now going about playing Santa with a big sack of federal COVID relief cash.
But is it all too little, too late for many facing business extinction?
Evers recently announced he would redistribute $10 million in federal taxpayer-funded American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds ostensibly to help Wisconsin tourism businesses. The money will be doled out in competitive grants to local governments and tourism nonprofits to help promote, maintain, or bolster Wisconsin’s tourism industry, according to the Evers administration.
The money — or at least the announcement of the grant program — comes as the critical summer tourism season in northern Wisconsin winds down.
“I think it’s coming too late,” said Hauke, owner of Nitschke’s Northern Resort, a family vacation destination in Minocqua. “The summer tourism season up here is a standard 13-to-15 weeks. That’s the end of August.”
Evers in June announced $140 million in ARPA funding for tourism and entertainment industries, including $75 million in lodging grants, more than $25 million in assistance for live event venues and movie theaters, and $22.5 million for marketing campaigns.
It’s not clear how much of the $140 million has been distributed, but it certainly won’t be anywhere near enough to cover the damage done. In May, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism reported direct tourism spending in Wisconsin declined 28.3 percent in 2020, to $9.8 billion. That’s a drop of nearly $4 billion. Travel spending nationally plummeted 42 percent in 2020, down nearly $500 billion from the previous year, according to U.S. Travel Association.
Tourism was hit hard by COVID-19, the fear surrounding it, and restrictive state and local health orders. Now the industry, like just about every other industry, is facing another crisis: A severe worker shortage. Evers has made that worse, too.
Bowing to liberal interests, the governor refused to end the federal pandemic unemployment bonus payment, $300 weekly, that workforce experts say has kept some jobless Wisconsinites from re-entering the workforce. He couldn’t connect the dots between the nearly $17 an hour in unemployment benefits, much of it tax-free, and workers waiting on the sidelines.
Evers then vetoed a Republican bill that would have ended the bonus payments, and his Democrat allies in the Assembly later sustained the veto.
Haucke said her resort has had a hard time filling positions, but local restaurants and other tourism-dependent businesses are really stuck.
The popular Island Cafe, for instance, recently was forced to close.
“As a busy season continues and staff is very limited we will be taking a break and closing for a few weeks to regroup physically, mentally!” the restaurant’s Facebook page states. It closed on Aug. 2. “Stay tuned for reopening date.”
Haucke said part of the problem is too many people who can work are being paid to “sit at home on their hinders.” Evers is making it easier to do that.
“I shot him an email and basically said, ‘Shame on you. You’re closing down businesses to allow people to sit at home on their hinders,” the resort owner said. She voted for Evers. She said she doesn’t know if she’ll do so again. “This is a big one.”
Still, Evers has had at his disposal billions of dollars in federal COVID relief to sprinkle here and there, to repair the political damage he’s done through his disastrous policies and executive orders. He’s got enough “free” federal money to shower on different constituencies over the next 15 months, riding all the way up to the election in November 2022. Expect him to strategically release cash in the months ahead.
A new Marquette University Law School poll finds Evers’ approval rating at 50 percent, with 43 percent of respondents disapproving of the Democrat’s performance. The poll breaks with another survey last month that found Evers under water. The Marquette poll of 807 registered voters, conducted Aug. 3-8, found only 38 percent believe Wisconsin is heading in the right direction. That number has plummeted since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, when 61 percent of those surveyed said Wisconsin was on the right track.