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Republican National Convention to build on Milwaukee’s growing visibility, tourism leader says

Visit Milwaukee’s president and CEO Peggy Williams-Smith addressed Milwaukee’s reputation

The Milwaukee city skyline
The Milwaukee city skyline is seen Friday, April 7, 2023, in Milwaukee. Morry Gash/AP Photo

All eyes have been on Milwaukee less than three weeks before the Republican National Convention kicks off there. Between contestants performing well on national cooking competition shows to celebrity sightings at Summer Fest, some feel like people are reevaluating their perceptions of the city.

Visit Milwaukee’s president and CEO Peggy Williams-Smith addressed Milwaukee’s reputation during an event at the Milwaukee Press Club Monday. She said she takes pride in Milwaukee’s “current swagger.”

“We are people who are very proud even though we’re not braggadocious,” Williams-Smith said.

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But not all comments have been complimentary. Earlier in June, former President Donald Trump reportedly called Milwaukee, the host city for the RNC, a “horrible city” during a closed-door meeting, initially reported by Punchbowl News.

Williams-Smith said reports of the remark generated amazing amounts of press for the city.

“When someone comes at us, we’re going to come right back at you with the facts. And the facts are that we are amazing. And we are working hard every day to be better,” she said.

When Trump campaigned in Racine last week, he began his speech by addressing his alleged comment.

“I love Milwaukee,” Trump said. 

Williams-Smith said Milwaukee chef Dan Jacobs’ rise to the finals on “Top Chef,” which was filmed in the city last summer, and the Milwaukee Bucks winning the 2021 NBA Championship have helped change the narrative around Milwaukee.

“I think examples like that have helped us as a community get beyond a level of humility that was honestly hurting us,” she said.

A sea of fans can be seen from above.
Fans fill Deer District before the game Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

RNC could bring in nearly $200M in economic impact

The Republican National Convention is also boosting Milwaukee’s visibility. The convention, which runs July 15-18, is expected to draw 50,000 visitors to the city.

Williams-Smith said the economic impact was the No. 1 reason for hosting the RNC, with an expected almost $200 million coming in — a number some experts dispute. Williams-Smith said the convention plus the expansion of the Baird Center are the “perfect storm” of tourism and publicity for the city.

In 2023, the total economic impact of tourism in Milwaukee County exceeded $4.1 billion. Direct and indirect spending from the RNC will contribute to the reported economic impact for 2024.

“The bigger story is what happens afterwards, and capitalizing on all the things that people talk about, so that we can make sure that we don’t lose this momentum,” Williams-Smith said.

In August, Visit Milwaukee plants to make an announcement about an upcoming event whose organizers “would have never considered Milwaukee” without the expansion of the Baird Center and the RNC. Williams-Smith declined to share more details about the event.