More than a dozen groups unite to create new Milwaukee Theater District

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- More than a dozen Milwaukee theater organizations are banding together to increase national awareness of the city’s arts scene.

Wednesday evening the city's theater community announced the creation of the brand-new Milwaukee Theater District, which will work to increase the city's visibility on the national arts stage so that every theater and venue benefits.

Many of the stakeholders say the downtown theater area has a unique soul and identity and deserves its own name to recognize its unique contributions to the city.

Andrew Flack of Marcus Hotels & Resorts said, "The whole ecosystem benefits when the heart of downtown has a strong identity."

Recognizing and promoting that identity was the theme of Wednesday's launch effort, held in the Riverside Theater. Theaters, venues, performance groups, and community stakeholders will now unite behind a common mission.

The goal is to attract people to the city, have them stay for a while, and get them to spend their money.

Peggy Williams-Smith, President and CEO of VISIT Milwaukee, said, "It would be easier for us to be able to market a district."

There is no physical boundary for the district, but the participating venues are all within a walkable cluster downtown.

Gary Witt, the President & CEO of the Pabst Theater Group, knows there's a lot to be proud of but there's also work to do. He said of Milwaukee, "The parking is affordable, the hotels are amazing and affordable, and our restaurant scene is unbeatable. It's really grown at this point and time. We're a discoverable city, we just haven't done a good job marketing ourselves. That's our job, and that's part of the job of the Theater District."

The theater district employs more than 1,000 people, and more than 2 million people attend Milwaukee shows every year.

Mark Niehaus is the President & CEO of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He said, "We're very humble in Milwaukee. It's time to stop being humble."

That means toutng world-class facilities and talent and attracting international visitors to stay and spend in the city.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson told the assembled crowd, "There's something special happening in the center of our city."

Johnson said the city is fully behind the new theater district, but he's also behind two venues that will soon be built in the Deer District by promotions company FPC Live. Johnson said, "I also want four other venues, including the FPC Live venues that we supported, to do well, as well. More is more in Milwaukee."

But not everyone has agreed. Several theater owners believe the Deer District site could put them out of business. In September thousands of people signed a petition to stop the venue, but the common council still approved the necessary zoning measures.

On Wednesday, Witt said, "It's not really my concern any longer. Our concern is really our business."

So instead, the members of the new Milwaukee Theater District are looking ahead.

Mark Niehaus, President & CEO of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, said, "We have incredible assets here, and I'm so thrilled that we are putting a stamp on it with this Theater District."

And they're ready to lift all boats. Witt said, "It's not really about marketing the theaters, it's about the theaters being used as a tool to tell people there are divisions and parts of the city that are exciting, that they might never visit."

Ever important as the theater community works to recover from still-devastating covid impacts. Patrick Rath, the President & CEO of the United Performing Arts Fund, said, "Come out. Enjoy. And live the best life you have. And do it through our arts community."

Tuesday night was a perfect example of how one show can benefit the city as a whole. Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke's new band The Smile sold out the Riverside Theater. People from 30 different US cities and seven countries came to Milwaukee for the show. Peggy Williams-Smith said they stayed in Milwaukee, ate in Milwaukee and spent their money in Milwaukee.

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