A Milwaukee summer without Summerfest could give fans 'time to get their psyche back'

Piet Levy Bill Glauber
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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For 53 years, Summerfest has brought millions of people together at Milwaukee's lakefront.

Now, for the sake of public health, people have to stay apart. 

With concerts, sporting events and other social gatherings halted because of the coronavirus pandemic, Summerfest officials announced Monday that Milwaukee's 11-day bonanza would be postponed until fall. 

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Instead of running June 24 to July 5, Summerfest is now scheduled across nine days in September, specifically Sept. 3 to 5, 10 to 12 and 17 to 19. 

How painful was it to make the move? Don Smiley, CEO for Summerfest's parent company Milwaukee World Festival Inc., had a ready answer.

"Given what is going on with our world today with the public health emergency, it's hard for me to think in terms of painful," Smiley told the Journal Sentinel Tuesday. 

"Is it different? Does it present challenges? Yes. Do we have the experience and professional staff to work around those challenges? Yes.

"It was a decisive move. It was the safe thing to do for everyone involved — bands, sponsors, fans, vendors."

"When you look in the big picture, when you really open the aperture and see what's going on in our community and the world, this gives people time to get back to work and, hopefully, have some disposable income and they can go back and enjoy themselves," Don Smiley, CEO of Summerfest's parent company Milwaukee World Festival Inc., told the Journal Sentinel.

Most of all, Smiley said, the move gives Summerfest "precious time" to get it right and to have the public regain confidence in going out. Of course, everything is subject to how the coronavirus outbreak plays out over the coming weeks and months. 

"When you look in the big picture, when you really open the aperture and see what's going on in our community and the world, this gives people time to get back to work and, hopefully, have some disposable income and they can go back and enjoy themselves," Smiley said. "It also gives them time to get their psyche back to where it was prior to this public health emergency.

"We think it will take a little bit of time for people to want to go out to go to a concert, go to a golf tournament, go to a crowded restaurant. I don't think that's going to bounce back just because you flip a switch."

A city, and summer, on pause 

Life in Milwaukee has been dramatically altered this month, from the Bucks' championship-striving season put on hold to restaurants, bars and other businesses forced to close their doors — prompting 101,400 unemployment claims in Wisconsin in the past nine days. And there's still no clear understanding when we might return to a sense of normalcy.

With the Big Gig's postponement, fans, musicians, vendors and officials are processing what it will mean to have a summer in Milwaukee without Summerfest, for the first time in its history.

"They're making the best of a very bad situation," said Milwaukee Ald. Bob Bauman. "We're 10 days into this and the impact has been profound. If this continues for any substantial length of time, the impact on the morale and the psyche of the community will be catastrophic, the consequence of which no one can predict."

"They had to do something," said Peter Jest, a longtime concert promoter in Milwaukee, the owner of live-music venue Shank Hall and who worked on Summerfest's booking team early in his career. "All the major tours are going to postpone, so (Summerfest officials) weren't going to be able to keep it there."

A festival founded to heal 

For many in Milwaukee, Summerfest is more than an annual party. It's interwoven into the identify of the community, the crown jewel for the City of Festivals.

When it began in 1968, it was a means to bring healing to a city divided by racial tensions, tensions that escalated into a riot less than a year prior. 

Today, it is the largest music festival in America, bringing in at least 700,000 fans each year and touting 800 bands. But Summerfest has never lost sense of its initial identity. Unlike practically every music festival in the world, it offers something for everybody, programming a diverse entertainment slate designed to appeal across musical tastes and demographics, all for a comparatively modest price point. General admission per day in 2020 is $23 at most. 

And it's been a major boon for the local economy, with an annual economic impact of $187 million in Milwaukee, with an additional $39 million filtering through the state, according to a 2013 study by the firm Tourism Economics.

"It's hard to say what kind of impact Summerfest moving will have," said Kristin Settle, director of communications for Visit Milwaukee. "We are in such an unknown world right now."

Impact on lineup — and jobs 

There are still many unknowns regarding how this new version of Summerfest will shape up. Festival officials have yet to announce if any of the 32 confirmed acts — including Justin Bieber, Guns N' Roses, Luke Bryan, Halsey and Dave Matthews Band — will be available in September.

It'll be a shorter Summerfest at nine days vs. 11, but still unknown is whether the festival will still book bands from noon to midnight each day. And while Summerfest's new dates are technically still in summer, they're taking place after summer vacations are generally over, which could affect not only attendance, but employment at the festival itself.

Last year, Summerfest hired 2,225 seasonal employees.

“A lot of college kids and high school kids are on the grounds crew,” Jest said. “And they are going to be in school.”

Smiley said he doesn't have "all the answers" right now, adding "there's a lot to figure out."

Russ Klisch, founder and president of longtime Summerfest vendor Lakefront Brewery, is expecting a softer year for sales.

“We won’t make as much money as we usually do in the summertime,” he said.

But Klisch added: “I’m happy they did something. … It’ll probably be the highlight of the year.”

While Milwaukee World Festival has managed to push Summerfest off to September, other festivals haven’t been so lucky. Glastonbury in England, Firefly in Delaware, Ultra Music Festival in Miami and SXSW in Austin are just some of the festivals that are no longer happening this year because of the coronavirus.

Summerfest vs. football  

With its delayed start, Summerfest will have some interesting competition for consumer attention. Opening night for the NFL is set for Sept. 10, and the University of Wisconsin Badgers have home games at Camp Randall Stadium the three Saturdays during Summerfest’s run, Jest noted. 

The rescheduled fest also will square off against the popular Riot Fest in Chicago Sept. 11 and 12, and Jest suspects Summerfest won’t be able to book any of the same acts because of geographic clauses that limit how close shows can be.

The rescheduled Summerfest will be a huge challenge for the Big Gig’s talent team.

Warren Wiegratz, the only musician who has performed at Summerfest every year, said he was booked for Summerfest again back in February. Now he’s checking with his bandmates to see if they can make September work. 

"A lot of musicians' dates are booked six, eight, 10, 12 months in advance," Wiegratz said. "It's a logistical nightmare for bands who were going to do Summerfest in the summer, but are booked for September dates. Everything is going to get scrunched together."

Whenever the coronavirus pandemic passes, Visit Milwaukee will execute "an aggressive marketing and earned media strategy to help the city recover and bounce back," Settle said. And Summerfest, now in September, will be "an integral part of Milwaukee's comeback strategy as a destination."

"Travel and wanderlust are in our DNA, and we know once this crisis lifts, leisure and tourism will be top of mind because people will want to get out and explore again," she said. "Coronavirus is changing the world right now, but it's not changing Milwaukee, who we are as a city and as a people."

Kathy Flanigan of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report. 

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