by Sarah Hall
Sheboygan was one of two tourism hotspots in the state where Governor Tony Evers last week disclosed his plans to offer $140 million in grants to businesses and organizations driving Wisconsin’s tourism and entertainment industries.
“It’s always great to be back in Sheboygan County. It’s one of my favorite places on earth,” Evers told a group of more than 30 reporters, TV camera crew members and local government officials nestled into the gift shop of the Sheboygan Visitor Center last Thursday afternoon.
Flanking him were Sheboygan Mayor Ryan Sorenson and Acting Secretary of the Department of Tourism Anne Sayers, who also made remarks. Earlier Thursday, Evers had offered a similar news conference in Lake Geneva.
“Wisconsin is bouncing back stronger than ever,” said Evers, a Plymouth native. “Our unemployment rate is back to pre-pandemic levels and we recently learned that our state budget has $4.4 billion more than anticipated coming in general revenue (over the next three years).” He cited research indicating that tourism is resurging and 87 percent of Americans plan to travel this summer.
“But our work is far from over,” he noted. “That means, folks, that now is the time to not just be OK with getting back to pre-pandemic levels, but to actually move forward. That means we have to be very strategic and smart in investing our money.”
“Here in Sheboygan, we are excited to start welcoming visitors to the coastal communities through our Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary,” he noted.
Evers explained that he funneled the first round of federal Covid-relief funding through the CARES Act towards farmers, small businesses, renters in danger of eviction and others who needed it most. Now it is tourism’s turn for a boost.
Grants will be directed to live event venues, movie theaters, summer camps, minor league sports, the lodging industry and other enterprises hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Additional investments will be made in reopening Wisconsin historical sites and marketing support for Wisconsin’s tourism industry.
“Folks here in Sheboygan know it well: You have to be flexible, you have to be innovative and you have to adapt to what is going on around you,” Evers continued. “Investing in businesses that promote culture and entertainment in our communities will pay dividends for Wisconsinites and communities across our state.”
The investments announced by Evers include:
• $75 million for lodging grants;
• $11.25 million for movie theaters;
• $12 million for live event small businesses;
• $2.8 million for minor league sports teams;
• $10 million for live venues;
• $15 million for destination marketing organizations;
• $8 million for summer camps;
• $1 million for the Wisconsin Historical Society to assist in reopening historical sites; and
• $7.5 million to increase marketing support for Wisconsin’s tourism industry.
These grants will be funded by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and will be administered by the Wisconsin Department of Administration and the Department of Revenue.
“These dollars are so crucial to helping our industry bounce back,” said Acting Secretary of the Department of Tourism Anne Sayers. “I cannot wait to help more travelers experience the unexpected here in Wisconsin and in Sheboygan, too.”
“Just like the state fair is coming back, so are the visitors,” she continued, pointing out predictions that tourism spending will nonetheless not fully recover until about 2024 and “it’s going to look more like a dial than a switch.”
Overnight trips are already outpacing pre-pandemic levels, leisure travel overall will rebound next and business travel will take longest to recover, according to Sayers.
Next up was Mayor Sorenson.
“Thank you so much for your dedication to tourism, because truly in our community, this is a central pillar to economic success,” he said. “I know that we are going to be bouncing back much stronger because of the governor’s support.”
Before the pandemic, tourism generated more than $10 million in revenues in Sheboygan alone and $240 million throughout the county annually, according to Sorenson.
“We’re the Malibu of the Midwest and we all know it,” he quipped. “We are the freshwater sailing capital of the world.” He pointed out the county’s maritime, culinary and golfing treasures, noting the approach of the 2021 Ryder Cup championships here.
“If people want to travel to a beautiful place this summer, come to Sheboygan. We have great lakes, great people, great food. We’re a family-friendly playground offering waterfront fun and we’re a great place to live,” Sorenson summed up.
“It’s a great city and you do a great job with tourism,” Evers added.
County Administrator Adam Payne thanked the governor for his support and leadership and also urged him on behalf of local business owners to consider eliminating the $300 unemployment compensation bonus as a further economic stimulus.
Evers said he was considering the issue but the longer-term employment concern was that “we need more people in the state … we can think about the things that cause people to stay here and come here, and this is why quality-of-life is important.” Tourism, transportation, and affordable housing are part of that answer, Evers said.