By Michail Takach Special to OnMilwaukee Published Jun 21, 2024 at 5:01 PM

Sunday, June 9 was the grand finale of Milwaukee Pride weekend. Thousands lined the streets of Walker’s Point for the 20th annual Milwaukee Pride Parade and the Pride on 2nd Street festival. Pride Weekend 2024 was bigger than ever, with over 46,000 festival visitors, two hundred entries in a three-hour parade and hundreds of Pride Riders.

But yesterday’s applause has short echoes. Even days later, memories of crowded Walker’s Point blocks, businesses operating at full capacity and people dancing in the streets still linger. But that’s just one day of the year – and that day won’t be back until 2025. As the crowds fade away as fast as a hangover, LGBTQ bar owners are already feeling the all-too-real crunch of summertime construction and festival competition. 

According to the 2022 census, there are 1.3 million same-sex households in the United States with a combined buying power of $1.4 trillion. Nearly 10,000 of those households are in Wisconsin. But there’s no single measure of Pride spending in Wisconsin or the United States. Contributing factors include tourism dollars, corporate sponsorships, fundraising, government agency support and individual spend.

Curiously, the most recent study of Pride’s economic impact dates to 1999, when financial analysts estimated that PrideFest Milwaukee generated $1.3 million to stimulate the local economy. Adjusted for inflation, which would be $2.5 million today – and that’s before adjusting for the massive increase in attendance. PrideFest 1999 only saw 13,455 visitors compared to 43,964 in 2024. 

By this math, PrideFest alone generated $6 million in local economic stimulation this year. But are the bar owners feeling stimulated?

We’ve all heard the news headlines: The U.S. economy is resurgent, unemployment at near-record lows and tourism spending is at all-decade highs. Last fall, Milwaukee saw its first new LGBTQ bar opening in 15 years, and it seems there are more on the way. The Great Milwaukee Summer is officially under way.

But we’re also seeing significant changes in post-pandemic nightlife habits. Generation Z is emerging as the “most sober generation yet,” with over 39% citing they don’t drink at all. At the same time, our surrounding states have legalized recreational cannabis. These shifts have triggered a butterfly effect across entertainment, hospitality and media industries worldwide. 

So, how are Milwaukee’s “gay bars” navigating the summer ahead – now that the glitter storm of Pride weekend is behind us – and how can the community pay it forward?

Building a new legacy: Harbor Room 

Harbor Room owner Brian Kohler
Harbor Room owner Brian Kohler

“Back in 1993 when I came out, there were 26 gay bars in the city of Milwaukee,” said Harbor Room owner Brian Kohler. “Now we’re down to maybe seven or eight. With social, cultural and economic changes being what they are, the gay bar isn’t needed as much as it once was. We’ll always have the gay bar, but its role just keeps on changing, and the smart bars are adapting to survive."

“Harbor Room has changed with the times,” Kohler added. “On any given day, I’ll have straight women, trans women, neighborhood folks, lesbians, PFLAG moms, straight co-workers at happy hour, you name it. And lately, we have people just wandering in wondering ‘what is this place?’ Years ago, it would be very unusual to see any of these people at Harbor Room. It’s all about being welcoming to all.”

Kohler points to Generation Z, who’ve grown up in a world of wider mainstream acceptance, invasive social media, app-based dating, and wildly diversifying gender and sexual identities.

“Our next generation of customers doesn’t entirely understand why Pride is an event,” said Kohler. “They see Pride as something that’s always-on. And I compare this to our oldest customers, who couldn’t rent apartments together if they weren’t blood-related, even if they were together for decades. Pride is a universal reminder of how far we’ve come together, and it’s working. Look at this year’s Milwaukee Pride Parade, the largest in state history. It’s become a destination, a multigenerational learning experience and a reminder: They’re still coming for us, but we are stronger than ever.”

Kohler cited other celebrations, like the Annual Easter Bonnet Contest, Memorial Day cookout and Christmas Adopt-a-Family Fundraiser, as examples of what keeps people coming.

“We must be creative. We must collaborate. We must give people a reason to come here and come back,” said Kohler. “I look at our partnership with Pride Rides Wisconsin as a great example. Not only do we support their rides throughout the summer, but we host fundraisers supporting a different charity every month. We recently raised money for Pathfinders, my passion project, and everyone felt great about that.”

During Harbor Room’s heyday between 2000-2006, the bar staffed at least three bartenders and a barback on busy nights. The bar was much more “leather” back then, serving mostly men seeking men. While women weren’t unwelcome, they weren’t entirely welcome either. The bar was known for a long-time drink special: Drinks were half-price for shirtless men.

Two decades have brought transformative change to 1st and Greenfield. The Grede Foundry, once a steady source of three-shift tavern business, was demolished in 2006. Manufacturing ceased in the old Allen-Bradley clocktower years ago. Many of the small machine shops, garages and warehouses throughout Walker’s Point have disappeared – replaced by reclaimed industrial residences and retail complexes. The Harbor District BID promises to revitalize Milwaukee’s shoreline, and those long-term plans are now beginning to take root.

However, the biggest change was the loss of Harbor Room owner Gregg Fitzpatrick (1952-2021) whose husband Eddie Carver-Fitpatrick preceded him only six months earlier. Many feared the loss of the Fitpatricks meant the end of Harbor Room – but just the opposite happened.

“People notice a change here, but they don’t know what the change is,” Kohler said. “We wanted to respect Gregg’s legacy, so we didn’t do a massive remodel or reinvention. We made some desperately needed repairs, did a deep cleaning, and bought some new chairs and tables. And, somehow, the vibe changed completely. People understood, this isn’t just a cosmetic change – this is a mood change. And business came back strong.”

Nowadays, it’s just one bartender – but business keeps growing, so a second bartender isn’t far away. Harbor Room even has a female bartender, who has charmed Sunday crowds with mimosa and Bloody Mary specials. But the bar still isn’t drawing the late night crowds it used to see.

“People just don’t go out like they used to, before the pandemic,” Kohler said. “It’s not unusual for us to close at 10 or 11 on weeknights, when we used to stay open until bar time. Some of the most popular bars in Walker’s Point – not just the gay bars – are closed by midnight nowadays. We’re just not a late-night town anymore, it seems.”

“Last year, we were up against Gregg’s numbers, which were easy to beat," Kohler added. “Now, we’re up against our own numbers from last year. I don’t really benefit from Pride down here: I don’t get the foot traffic from the parade or the shuttles. But change is constant. Tomorrow’s challenges will be different from today’s. So, I must be creative. I have to offer something to keep people coming.”

Brian looks forward to the next phase of Freshwater Plaza, which will bring new residents, retail, and a dog park to 1st and Greenfield. 

“The neighborhood is changing, and we’ll just keep on changing with it.”

Honoring the past, focused on the future: This Is It 

This Is It owner George Schneider
This Is It owner George Schneider

Since 1968, LGBT landmark This Is It was the little engine that could, quietly chugging along at 418 E. Wells St. year after year nearly unnoticed and unseen. In fact, some customers still used the alleyway door to maintain the late-'60s clandestine experience. Since 2018, external renovations and internal expansion – including parklet seating, a colorful façade, rainbow crosswalks, open windows, and a performance space and dance floor – have greatly increased the bar’s visibility, capacity and sustainability.

But East Town has seen its own challenges in recent years. Long-time neighbors closed, including Louisa’s Trattoria (2018) and Flannery’s (2023).  The Hop reconfigured traffic and eliminated some parking spots on Kilbourn Avenue. Construction of the new BMO Tower and improvements to North Van Buren Street have restricted access to Wells Street. 

And now, the total reinvention of East Wells Street – including new sidewalks, bike lanes, landscaping and other traffic calming elements – has left This Is It on an impenetrable island in the middle of Downtown Milwaukee. The mid-block tavern, like Real Chili across the street, is currently accessible only by foot. Both are open for business – for those willing to navigate the rerouted traffic and reduced parking. 

While Wells Street construction was originally expected to run from April to July, the past due project is now aiming for November. In the meantime, half the block will be done before the Republican National Convention, when construction pauses, and the other half – where the two surviving businesses remain – won’t be done until November. To compound matters, this year’s project follows last year’s gas line maintenance which also impacted traffic, parking and accessibility for four months.

“Construction has really kicked us while we’re down,” said George Schneider, owner of This Is It. “Bar suppliers increased their costs during COVID, and while the economy recovered, those prices didn’t go back down. People are feeling that artificial inflation, and it’s causing them to be more mindful of spending money. Given the choice between groceries, gasoline and going out, nightlife is a luxury some are skipping. The economy is better overall, but that recovery hasn’t trickled down to normal people like us yet.

“The questions I hear most often are, ‘Why is the city doing this?’ and ‘Why is the city doing this right now?’"

Schneider funneled concerns from customers and employees to Alderman Bob Baumann but has not yet seen a response. He’s concerned about the two new businesses announced for the area: Electric Lime’s steakhouse at 801 N. Jefferson and People’s Park, 425 E. Wells. How are newcomers supposed to thrive, when bars and restaurants are closing every day – even national chains with tremendous equity – sometimes without any warning?

“Parking in Downtown Milwaukee always has this stigma,” Schneider said. “If people think they won’t find street parking, they’ll find somewhere else to go. We have four parking structures within a block of the bar, and most nights, they’re virtually empty. Ironically, we are surrounded by parking. But the perception is still that there’s nowhere to park. I guess I can’t blame people, when every major street in Downtown Milwaukee is torn up this summer.”

This Is It customers have long relied on the angled parking spots on Jefferson Street. Now, many of those are now “hooded” and unavailable for use due to construction.

“Millions and millions of dollars were allocated to get this project done, but it doesn’t feel like it’s happening with any priority or strategy at all,” Schneider said. “There’s been no accommodation for affected businesses other than sidewalk signage. No economic relief or financial compensation. The city’s resource website tells us to ‘try a marketing plan’ to overcome the yearlong impact of construction. Seriously.”

Nobody would ever accuse This Is It of needing a marketing plan. For years, the bar’s events calendar has rivaled larger clubs in West Hollywood, the West Village or Chicago’s Boystown. Not a day seems to go by without larger-than-life events, fundraisers and performances, ranging from ballroom house competitions to movie nights to 18+ dance parties. Before the pandemic, the bar would host 4-5 drag shows a week – more than any other bar in Milwaukee – and the shows continued online when bars were temporarily closed. 

“We’ve rolled things back a bit since construction began,” Schneider said. “We’ve done more throwback events to rekindle that nostalgic, emotional connection to what This Is It means to the community. We’ve brought back the “2-for-1 Tuesdays” and encapsulate the old school cocktail lounge experience on the bar side. We’ve investing in new barstools to restore a little ambience. We’re even throwing a Construction Party to embrace our challenges, make the best of them and hope people realize we’re all in this together.”

Recently, Schneider donated over 2,000 historic photos to the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project. These images, which populated slideshows above the bar for decades, chronicle decades of community and connection that happened within its walls. The This is It Collection is now available on Facebook. (As the oldest LGBTQ bar in Wisconsin, This Is It is also the home of the History Project’s only permanent exhibit.)

“We recognized we’d have a better chance of identifying everyone if we got these online,” Schneider said. “The History Project has been a wonderful steward for historic collections that people love and value but have absolutely no idea what to do with. We’re proud to find these photos a permanent archival home.”

Despite the challenges of today, Schneider is optimistic about the promises of tomorrow. 

“Are we struggling? Yes. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no magical pot of limitless ‘Trixie money,'” Schneider said, referring to business partner Trixie Mattel. “There’s a perception that Trixie is keeping this place alive ... that she was the miracle that came to save us during COVID. It’s nice folklore, but that’s not what happened. If we were failing, our investors would not just throw money at us. Trixie’s a smart businessperson, and she would never invest in a failing business.

“We have built the connections to bring amazing national talent to Downtown Milwaukee. We have a great 56-year relationship with our landlord. We have weathered economic storms like this throughout our history and we’re still here. So, what can customers do? Support local. Overcome that fear of inconvenience. Take a rideshare. Walk over a few extra blocks to see us. Pay a few dollars for secure off-street parking. Stop by on your next night out. These simple gestures mean a lot.

“Fifteen people work at This Is It. Your support is not only appreciated, but necessary, at a time like this. Everyone is upset when a business closes, but the proactive approach is supporting the small local businesses while they’re still here.

“There really are some silver linings here. This is temporary pain that will have a long-term payoff. I’m excited about the summer: Jazz in the Park and Bastille Days are among the best experiences Milwaukee has to offer. I’m even excited about the construction, believe it or not. Yes, we’ll lose our parklet and a few parking spots out front. But our sidewalk will grow, with beautiful landscaping to make Wells more of an experience than an East Side speedway. We’ll have nice new benches and planters, and trees will return to Wells Street for the first time since the 1950s.

“It’s just making sense of the mess until then.”

Finding new rhythms: Walker’s Pint 

Walker's Pint owner Bet-Z Boenning
Walker's Pint owner Bet-Z Boenning

Opened in 2001, Walker’s Pint is now one of the city’s longest-running LGBTQ spaces. It’s also the last surviving lesbian bar in Wisconsin and one of only a few dozen in the entire country, which earned the bar tremendous media attention since the Lesbian Bar Project launched in 2020.

“Our motto is ‘Be Nice or Leave,’ and that applies to everyone,” said owner Bet-Z Boenning. “Because that’s who we welcome at Walker’s Pint: everyone.”

Today, business is good – but Boenning knows there’s room to grow.

“2020 was supposed to be this really great year,” she remembers. “We had so many things happening in Milwaukee – including the Democratic National Convention – and everything was shut down. Things were really building up in our business, and it’s taken us awhile to get back to that. We are close to where we were four years ago – and we just keep getting better.

“The funny thing is our crowds have switched out so much. The people who came out before aren’t necessarily the people we are seeing now. Everyone’s business hours switched, and people adjusted their habits accordingly. We’ve always closed earlier than the other bars in the neighborhood, but I honestly don’t see people out past midnight much anymore. It depends on the events, but our late nights are just not that busy.”

Whlie things are trending up, Walker's Pint still faces some of the same issues as its fellow Milwaukee LGBTQ bars. 

“Parking was already an issue in Walker’s Point 20 years ago,” Bet-Z said, “and that was before this huge rush of new restaurants, stores and housing in the neighborhood. I don’t know that anyone saw that coming on this level. South Second recently developed the vacant lot next door, so we lost a few parking spots. The upcoming National Avenue project will affect traffic and parking for most of the next year. So, you’re trying to cram more people into a place where parking was already tough.

“Personally, I always try to encourage people to take rideshares, because it’s safer and more fun to bar-hop when you don’t have to worry about a car. Problem solved.”

While Bet-Z and team had a tremendous Pride Weekend, including the debut of a “Pint Park” beer garden at the Pride on 2nd Street festival after the parade, that business surge isn’t exactly guaranteed during the city’s other festivals, including Summerfest.

“When there’s a major festival going on, our area can actually be slower than usual, because everyone is at those festivals,” Bet-Z said. “You only have so many months in Milwaukee to enjoy those outdoor festivals. But they’re not an automatic benefit for us. In fact, it’s very unpredictable ... very hit and miss. It all depends on the shows if people go out and stay out. If the Indigo Girls are at Summerfest, people will park by us and take the local bar shuttles, and we’ll be busier that night. But that’s not every night.”

Bet-Z misses the days when “the world’s largest music festival” was an 11-day consecutive stretch, rather than multiple weekends throughout the summer. Summerfest’s scheduling changes have really changed the summer rhythm for Walker’s Point bar owners.

“People would take off work that entire week and just celebrate together for a week straight,” Bet-Z said. “They’d plan their entire year around that Summerfest trip. They’d stop by their favorite bar for a pre-game, head to the fest, come back to the neighborhood and stay out until bar time. It would get so busy back then. It’s funny, the schedule change somehow eliminated the weekday and weekend rushes we used to see.

“It was always such a point of pride that people came to Milwaukee from all over the region, country and world. That was something so unique and so cool. Now, I just don’t think that happens anymore, not even with the locals. Giving up three summer weekends for Summerfest is a lot to ask of people right now."

Still, the pint glass is more than half full at Walker's Pint, according to Bet-Z.

“Business is getting back to the days before social media, when people would come down at happy hour and figure out their plans for the week,” Bet-Z said. “They haven’t done that in a long time. That’s what I love about the Pint: people can meet here, network here, and find all these great people and great social opportunities. We’re going to do smaller, earlier events just to get people out. To be honest, I’m older, and I’m not out until bar time anymore myself. So, I love doing daytime or early evening events, like Jukebox Bingo, where people come out, have a fun time and can still get home at a good time.”

Bet-Z is inspired by the growing popularity of women’s sports – and the demand for spaces to watch the games. 

“We’ve always shown sports, but lately, we’re seeing requests to open earlier for women’s basketball games,” Bet-Z said. “We’re hoping to grow this audience because it’s important to me. It’s exciting that people are seeing women’s sports are valid.”

With a wildly successful Pride Weekend behind her, Bet-Z is excited about the bar’s 23rd anniversary party coming up on Saturday, July 13. 

“That’s always the party of the year, and being on a Saturday, it’s going to be bigger than ever,” said Bet-Z. “We’ve been so busy planning Pride, our golf outing and our anniversary, that I haven’t really looked to see what I want to do in Milwaukee this summer.”

In closing, Bet-Z wanted to share praise for a staff that’s seen her through it all.

“I genuinely love my team,” she said. “They’re such hard workers, and they’ve really been working their butts off this past month. They’re always receptive to new ideas and trying new things. And they’re amazing at raising money for causes that have meaning and impact for our community. They keep me inspired and focused – and I can’t thank them enough.

“A fired-up team makes such a difference – and our team is truly on fire right now. Come down and have a drink with us and see for yourself!”

Michail Takach Special to OnMilwaukee
Growing up in a time of great Downtown reinvention, Michail Takach became fascinated with Milwaukee's urban culture, landmarks and neighborhoods at a young age. He's been chasing ghosts ever since. Michail, a lifelong Milwaukeean, dreaGrowing up in a time of great Downtown reinvention, Michail Takach became fascinated with Milwaukee's urban culture, landmarks and neighborhoods at a young age. He's been chasing ghosts ever since. Michail, a lifelong Milwaukeean, dreams of the day when time travel will be possible as he's always felt born too late. Fearlessly exploring forbidden spaces and obsessively recording shameless stories, Michail brings local color to the often colorless topic of local history. As an author, archivist and communications professional, Michail works with community organizations (including Milwaukee Pride and Historic Milwaukee) to broaden the scope of historical appreciation beyond the "same old, same old."