The incredible vanishing city

James Rowen, Special to WiG

Here’s something that people in cities across the country understand: When the weather warms up, tourists come for the museums, the restaurants, the entertainment and the rest of the amenities that urban areas offer.

So people in Wisconsin’s biggest city were not surprised when the Journal Sentinel wrote that Milwaukee County leads the state in tourism spending.
But the Walker administration, politically hostile to Milwaukee and all things urban, is focusing its Department of Tourism website and visitors’ guide on just about everything but Milwaukee — except for a photo of a Milwaukee-area interstate highway and a directional sign that links to a WisDOT travel safe/road conditions website.

Welcome to Wisconsin! 

Throughout the year, the state of Wisconsin welcomes visitors from far and wide with countless exciting travel options. Visit extraordinary natural wonders such as Cave of the Mounds or the Apostle Islands. See the landscape in a whole new way with a thrilling zip line adventure.

If you’re all about the great outdoors, Wisconsin is a paradise for hunters, fishers and campers. Foodies, wine and beer lovers will delight in discovering Wisconsin’s artisan cheese makers, wineries and breweries, as well as the state’s abundant farmers markets and award-winning restaurants.

Great places like Wisconsin Dells, Door County and Lake Geneva offer tons of options for family fun as well as resorts for romantic getaways, golfing, boating, skiing and sightseeing. However you enjoy recreating, Wisconsin offers a special place to do it.

All of that is on the website.

But where are the featured pictures of Milwaukee’s stunning lakefront? Missing on the site are Summerfest, the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Milwaukee County Zoo, Miller Park, Water Street and the club scene. Where are the city’s many ethnic restaurants, Milwaukee County’s world-famous parks and botanical gardens, the Urban Ecology Center, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, the Pabst Theatre, Mitchell Park Domes, the breweries, the historic Third Ward and the downtown filled with historic architecture, including Milwaukee’s iconic City Hall?

I don’t see a single Milwaukee upcoming event listed in “Things to Do,” nor a single restaurant, sub and sandwich shop, bed and breakfast, pub, tavern, hotel — not even a coffee shop — on the site’s featured lists.

Milwaukee residents and businesses are paying taxes to support this website, which is sending tourists and commerce elsewhere. Cabins and kayaking and waterfalls are fine, but what about the rest of the state, you know, the part that votes Democratic and houses most of the state’s cultural attractions?

Walk With Walker’

The portion of the website that promotes hiking Wisconsin trails features a photo that links to “Walk with Walker,” a list of walks featuring the governor’s wife Tonette Walker. 

You can argue that all governors do this sort of thing, though I don’t recall a “Jogging with Jessica” website during Gov. Jim Doyle’s tenure. In an election year, such shameless self-promotion looks especially inappropriate.

In fairness, the site’s Southeast Wisconsin tab does give Milwaukee four lines and even a photo of MAM’s spectacular Calatrava entrance. But Lake Geneva and its fancy homes belonging to Chicago owners are mentioned in the same paragraph.

If visitors persevere through enough tab clicks, they could find a pdf listing of Milwaukee events. But the state’s largest city and economic engine gets no featured treatment. And I didn’t see a single photo of a person of color on the site.

What’s the message there? And to whom is it directed, or not?

The Milwaukee business community should be raising holy hell over all this. It put Walker in office, so where’s the reciprocity or the enlightened self-interest?

Remember that Walker warned Wisconsin voters Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett would turn the whole state into another Milwaukee. The bottom line is that his undisguised bias against the city affects many decisions state government makes about issues concerning Milwaukee and not in a positive way. The tourism website is just one.

James Rowen is a veteran newspaper writer and Democratic political consultant. Follow him at