Port Milwaukee expansion; soon to accommodate larger cruise ships

Milwaukee will soon be a cruise ship destination hosting more than 10,000 passengers a year. Port Milwaukee is getting ready to break ground this year to add larger docks to make room for the largest ships. 

"It’s tough on a day like today to think about beautiful summer weather. But it does give you inspiration, and it does give you excitement," said Adam Tindall-Schlicht, Port Milwaukee director. On a freezing February day, he gave FOX6 a tour of what will be new docks, next to the site of the Lake Express High-Speed Ferry.

Of the 10,000 expected cruise passengers in 2022, Viking Cruises will host 8,000. That is a spike from 2018, when less than 1,000 cruise passengers came to the city.

"More passengers, more visitors, more people that haven’t looked at Milwaukee and Wisconsin before. They are going to be able to do that because of the Great Lakes cruise activity," the port director said.

Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday, Feb. 3 presented Port Milwaukee $3.5 million for the expansion project. He is tapping into the state's share of federal American Rescue Plan Act money to offer grants to the tourism industry.

"Port Milwaukee can prepare for the next 20 to 50 years of service and help us welcome even more visitors and guests to enjoy all Wisconsin has to offer," Evers said.

"It’s a catalytic moment for something that we’ve been working on for several years now," Tindall-Schlicht added.

With those new visitors getting off the boat in Milwaukee, the city estimates each passenger will spend more than a hundred dollars per visit. 

Evers said the annual economic impact on cruises in Milwaukee is between $2.8 million and $4 million.

"When I think about cruise activity, in terms of a revenue generator for the port, the port will make a couple hundred thousand dollars a year," Tindall-Schlicht said.  "And this is really about Milwaukeeans, this is really about the state of Wisconsin. This is about fresh water tourism; it’s about bringing new faces, new people, new experiences right to our city and to our state."

It is not just out-of-towners the port expects to set sail.

"Here at the port, we like to call ourselves the ‘familiar unfamiliar.’ Especially as we enter the endemic phase of COVID-19, we believe that people are going to be looking at Geat Lakes itineraries, staying closer to home, choosing cruises that are on the Great Lakes, in lieu of traveling abroad, like the Mediterranean, like the Caribbean," Tindall-Schlicht said.

Other tourism grant recipients

A second grant, also worth $3.5 million and presented Thursday, is going to the Milwaukee County Zoo. The money will be used to revitalize the Humboldt penguin exhibit and to renovate the entrance to the zoo.

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"We are thrilled that the grant will help us showcase the connection between animals and our community," said Vera Westphal, Deputy Zoo Director.

Vera Westphal

Westphal says the money will allow the zoo to provide a state-of-the-art habitat for the penguins -- and add interactive features for zoo visitors.

The Milwaukee County Zoo welcomes more than 1.2 million visitors every year. 

Lastly, more than $112,000 was being provided to VISIT Milwaukee to help with its new mobile welcome center.

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"This is going to allow us to take Milwaukee outside of Milwaukee," said Peggy Williams-Smith, President and CEO of VISIT Milwaukee. "We know that tourism has changed and the majority of our visitors are coming within a six-hour driving radius. This will allow us to take Milwaukee to Chicago, take Milwaukee up to Green Bay, take Milwaukee over to Indianapolis to showcase all that Milwaukee has to offer."

Peggy Williams-Smith

The grants are part of the state's $21.9 million Tourism Capitol Grant Program, administered by the Evers administration, using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. 


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