In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle important city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Matt Wild: Last week, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a controversial “religious freedom” bill into law. According to the Indianapolis Star, “Senate Bill 101 prohibits state or local governments from substantially burdening a person’s ability to exercise their religion—unless the government can show that it has a compelling interest and that the action is the least-restrictive means of achieving it.” Though the language of the bill doesn’t specifically mention sexual orientation, many opponents fear it will allow business owners to use their religious beliefs in order to discriminate against gay, lesbian, or transgender people. Or, hell, discriminate against anyone, for that matter.
A growing number of businesses and organizations have come out against the bill, including Apple, Yelp, and Salesforce.com, which announced it would be “canceling all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination.” But one of the earliest and most vocal opponents of the bill was Gen Con, the country’s largest gaming/geek/nerd convention. Prior to the bill becoming law, Gen Con CEO Adrian Swartout wrote a letter to Gov. Pence threatening to pull out of the state if the bill was signed; after it was, Swartout wrote another letter explaining that Gen Con would honor its contract with Indianapolis through 2020, but that it was already looking into other options for 2021:
“Planning and bidding for our convention is a long-term process that begins five years prior to contract-term commencement. Discussion, whether to remain in Indy or move elsewhere, have begun.”
So Rob, with Gen Con apparently on the hunt for a new home, isn’t it time it came back to it’s old home? Gen Con, of course, was a local institution from 1985 through 2002, bringing thousands of nerds to downtown Milwaukee each and every year. (Gen Con Indy attendance has been pegged at around 60,000; its economic impact has been estimated as high as $50 million.) Now, with all the talk of downtown development and revitalization, it seems like the perfect time to bring Gen Con home.
As Milwaukee Record’s resident nerd expert, I assume you’re completely on board with this idea, and are ready to help me start a Change.org petition and flood social media with #BringGenConHome. Right? Let’s do this!
Rob Wieland: I hate to cast Power Word: Buzzkill on your suggestion, but the situation is more complicated than that. The past couple of years have seen explosive growth for the convention. Downtown hotel rooms have sold out within hours of opening for registration. While I appreciate Gen Con for taking a stand against a stupid law passed by a state government trying to screw over its biggest city (sound familiar?), chances are that Gen Con was probably considering moving at the end of its contract anyway.
Gen Con and Indianapolis have grown together over the past few years. There are several hotels within walking distance in downtown Indy, many of which opened because of the convention’s influence on the city. Putting up enough hotel rooms to surpass the number in Indianapolis is a daunting task, especially for a city that can’t pull the trigger on a single downtown strip club. Can you imagine how upset the anti-arena crowd would get over the tax incentives needed to lure hotel chains to town?
Beyond that, Indianapolis embraced the convention in ways Milwaukee never did. Local businesses reach out to convention goers, restaurants change menus to appeal to gamers, and vendors host parties all around downtown. When attendees who remember Milwaukee speak of their experiences here, they talk fondly about the Safe House…and that’s about it. Gen Con was willing to work with Milwaukee to grow together and the city let the show walk. If it returned, the city could embrace the convention, or it could protest and freak out about it like the streetcar. There seems to be a vocal faction of the city that fears anything new and different. If taco trucks encourage crime, Gen Con could bring Satanists. Or unicorns. Or swordfights in the streets.
Don’t get me wrong, Matt. I would love to see Gen Con return to the city of my birth. If I never have to engage in Indianapolis Hotel Kombat again in my life, it will be too soon. But there’s a lot of ground Milwaukee has to cover if it wants to make a serious bid. Other cities in contention include Chicago, Las Vegas, and Minneapolis. What can Milwaukee offer that other cities can’t?
Matt: So what you’re saying is that a well-meaning-yet-curiously-vague plan and a catchy hashtag might not be enough to woo back a former Milwaukee institution that packed up and left town decades earlier? Huh. Weird.
Well, consider me deflated. You’re right, of course—there’s no way Milwaukee could accommodate something the size and scale of Gen Con today. The question is, if all goes well and the new billionaire Bucks owners make good on their promise to turn downtown into a thriving urban metropolis, could Milwaukee handle Gen Con five years from today? The more I think about it, the less optimistic I am.
Let’s look at some rough numbers: Indianapolis boasted 33,000 hotel rooms in 2012, with more than 7,100 of them located downtown. The Indiana Convention Center—the current home of Gen Con—covers a whopping 1.2 million square feet of space. 749,000 square feet of that is exhibition space; 113,302 square feet is meeting rooms; and 62,173 square feet is ballroom space. Skywalks and tunnels directly connect the convention center to roughly 5,000 hotel rooms. There’s a reason Indy consistently ranks number one on lists of the country’s best convention cities. They’re not fucking around.
As of 2013, Milwaukee had roughly 4,000 hotel rooms located downtown. There’s been plenty of development since then, so let’s bump that up to an even 5,000. In 2009, according to VISIT Milwaukee, the total number of hotel room in the greater Milwaukee area was roughly 16,000. Again, let’s be generous and round that up to 20,000 for 2015. The oft-renamed Wisconsin Center, meanwhile, has only 188,695 square feet of exhibition space; 39,364 square feet of meeting space; and 37,506 square feet of ballroom space. Clearly, there’s going to have to be a lot of development for the Milwaukee of five years from now to match the Indy of today.
Ultimately, what I’m taking away from all of this is that while it may feel like Milwaukee is going to magically transform into a glistening 21st century city the second the Bucks break ground on their arena or whatever, that transformation—if it does happen—is going to take a long, long time. What can Milwaukee offer that other cities can’t? Well, I don’t know that it’s terribly unique to Milwaukee, but I’d say potential. There are a lot of good vibes floating around in the downtown air these days, but until those vibes become a reality—i.e. hotel rooms and convention centers—the untold number of 20-sided dice that once so proudly clattered away in Milwaukee will likely continue to clatter away somewhere else.
So Rob, let’s end this on a positive note. With #BringGenConHome a near impossibility and Milwaukee’s ability to host multiple nerd-friendly cons in question, what can area geeks look forward to?
Rob: There are still many bright spots in the geek scene here. The burgeoning 42 empire is expanding to multiple locations and big events at Turner Hall. At least half a dozen locations are participating in Tabletop Day next month, spreading the love of board games outside of the usual locations. The Midwest Gaming Classic is set for April 11 and 12 (albeit in Brookfield). The city is chock full of more comic, card, and game stores than ever before.
Milwaukee should look forward to new opportunities. Too often the city seems to look back to past glories to relive. Instead, they city should be building new Gen Cons and new experiences. The numbers you quoted could still host a decent convention. But it should be a new show, inspiring the next generation of nerds to feel pride about protecting their home from orcs and Cubs fans.