Downtown Milwaukee restaurant owner Omar Shaikh envisioned overflowing crowds, packed dining rooms and a big payday when the Democratic National Convention came to town.
Shaikh, chairman of the VISIT Milwaukee board, also saw the international attention hosting a convention would bring as a chance for the city along the shores of Lake Michigan to show the world how it's evolved from a Rust Belt manufacturing hub to a thriving, diverse, modern community.
“It would have been a game-changer,” he said. “There would have been people everywhere ready to spend, hundreds of millions of dollars coming into our city.”
Now, with the convention that begins Monday nearly entirely online due to the coronavirus, Shaikh and Wisconsin Democrats, who a year ago triumphantly hoisted glasses of Milwaukee's finest after winning the competition to host the convention, are crying in their beer.
“It is a gut punch,” Shaikh said. “It’s almost like you get the call you (won) the lottery, but you can’t cash the ticket in.”
The convention was originally to have taken place in July, attracted about 50,000 people to Milwaukee and injected about $250 million into the economy of the key presidential battleground state. It would have been the first time Milwaukee, a metropolitan area of 1.6 million, hosted a presidential nominating convention.
Milwaukee, in many ways, had been working the past decade toward this moment. An Upper Midwest city that suffered during a decline in manufacturing that began in the late 1970s, Milwaukee is often stereotyped as the home of Miller Beer, Harley-Davidson, and the '70s sitcoms “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley.” Sports fans know it as home to the Bucks and the Brewers, but little else.
“You hear the phrase so often, ‘flyover country,’” said John Gurda, a historian who has written multiple books about Milwaukee. “I think people were looking at the DNC as Milwaukee’s moment to be in the national spotlight and have some welcome attention shined on a city that is kind of in the shadows of American cities and richly deserves not to be.”