GREEN BAY, Wis. — Through recession, depression and crisis, Green Bay's economy historically held up better than much of the nation, but this time it could be different.
If the Green Bay Packers play football this year, fans might not be invited in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. That could result in a more than $150 million drain on economic activity. Hotels and restaurants would be most severely hurt, but the damage would surge throughout the economy.
"It’ll be a devastating impact on the Green Bay economy to not have any fans," said Brad Toll, CEO of the Greater Green Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau. "This has kind of been a nightmare. This is the kind of thing you go to the movies and see."
Packers games generate an estimated $15 million per game direct and indirect economic benefit to Brown County. With eight regular-season games, two preseason games and, this year, a Wisconsin Badgers-Notre Dame Fighting Irish college game scheduled for Lambeau Field, the loss could be in the neighborhood of $153 million. That does not include possible home playoff games, the EAA fly-in, the Ryder Cup tournament, or every convention and meeting already canceled.
"The fact is, you just have to look around to see what’s being built based on the success of the Green Bay Packers in terms of what they do represent for the economy, and just look at what the Packers are investing in themselves," said Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach.
"That’s all heavily depend on tourism and people staying in this community. That is obviously of great concern."
Of course, if the state stays locked down for an extended period of time, the Packers will be just one factor in a catastrophic situation. A survey conducted by New North Inc. and other economic development agencies released last week reported that 35% of responding businesses said they would close if conditions remained as they are for three months.
Even if non-essential Wisconsin businesses were allowed to resume operations, the absence of Packers fans would be keenly felt in Green Bay. The NFL has not said if it would have games, or if it does, whether fans would be allowed to attend. Games without fans is a distinct possibility.
"Every industry is needing to be asking that question, what do we need to do so people will feel safe?" Streckenbach said. "I imagine the Packers are trying to come up with safety procedures so people will feel safe.
"Without testing and further guidance and more personal protective equipment, it’s going to be difficult for us to get to that plateau. We absolutely need to figure out how to get back to work. It’s going to cripple our economy."
Historically, the stable Green Bay-area economy, supported by the papermaking, transportation and food-processing industries, provided a sound base for the Packers. The team's contribution to the economy was less, in part because many of the fans were local and because it played half its games in Milwaukee.
That changed in 1990s, when the Packers moved all their games to Lambeau Field and Green Bay resumed its place as one of the NFL's most successful franchises, increasing fan interest. The renovation of Lambeau Field in 2003 and the addition of about 7,000 seats in 2013 further altered the equation. An economic impact study conducted during the 2009 season concluded that more than 80% of fans attending Packers games traveled 50 miles or more, which meant a lot of money is imported into the community.
As a result, more hotels were built, and more bars and restaurants opened while existing ones expanded, driven in large part by the Packers' training camp and those 10 home games a year. Add to that the development of the Lambeau Field Atrium as a year-round tourism and meeting place and the development of Titletown District, which are all currently closed to the public.
The impact of lost meetings and conventions is at $25 million and counting, Toll said. CVB tries to re-book them for later in the year, but for those annual meetings that rotate cities, Green Bay sometimes gets bumped to the back of the line.
"You can just imagine everyone from the printer to the electrician to the utility, just small businesses themselves, one way or the other are impacted by this," Streckenbach said.
Using the 80% estimate, Packers games draw in the neighborhood of 600,000 people to Green Bay on game days.
"The influx of traffic during the NFL season for the home games does generate a lot of business for many people," said Tony Weid, CEO of Dino Stop gas and convenience stores in Green Bay. "We do see a huge increase on weekends and particularly on game days (at the Dino Stop) on Ashland Avenue. We also see big increases at our locations on interstates. It’s a statewide event."
Even now, Weid said, fuel demand is down 20%-50% at area stations.
"It's definitely not good right now for many businesses," he said.
So far, two hotels closed their doors and if the stay-at-home orders continue, others might. Toll said occupancy is running 12%-15%. Normal average occupancy is 58%.
"The tourism federation was asking for a more detailed way of getting our hotels and restaurants and entertainment venues out of this (shutdown), to come up with something substantial, more detailed," Toll said. "People need to see a light at the end of the tunnel."
In addition to lost wages and business spending, the county is losing room tax and sales tax dollars, which are funding large projects, such as the KI Convention Center, the Resch Center and Resch Expo, the new exhibition center now under construction, and others not yet begun.
Streckenbach said work on projects underway, such as the Resch Expo, scheduled for completion by early next year, will continue, but projects that have not broken ground, such as a new convention and visitors bureau office, might be modified.
Games without fans also would affect dozens of nonprofit groups that run the concession stands at Lambeau Field, using the money to support their organizations.
It's hard to find a silver lining in present circumstances, but Toll is hopeful long term.
"I remember after 9/11, there was a lot of concern in the tourism industry that we’d get to the point we’d stop meeting face to face. We moved away from that when we got back to business as usual," he said.
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