Whitten smiles as he watches the final round of the U.S.
Open Championship at Erin Hills in 2017. The golf event
was an economic windfall for the West Bend area, which
has seen continued growth in its tourism economy even
after the last professional golfer turned in his
scorecard that year.
Conley Media File Photo
Hosting a professional golf
tournament has consequences.
Big ones. Good ones. Green ones.
When Erin Hills in 2017 opened its tee boxes and putting greens to
professional golfers and their caddies — and transformed just about
everything else but its fairways and bunkers into spectator seating
— the West Bend area’s hotels scored a collective birdie.
Make that an eagle.
The amount of money the city of West Bend collected that year in
room taxes — a surcharge tacked onto local guests’ hotel rates —
jumped conspicuously. In 2016, the tax collection stood at barely
$369,000. In 2017, it jumped to well above $385,000, according to
numbers provided this week by the city’s finance department.
It’s not hard to imagine why, given the hordes of fans — more than
200,000 of them — who’d gathered to watch Brooks Koepke score a
nationally televised championship under Holy Hill’s iconic twin
spires. Thousands more people showed up to volunteer at the event.
They all needed to sleep somewhere.
“That had a huge impact,” Craig Farrell, the West Bend Area Chamber
of Commerce’s executive director, said of the windfall- like effect
the Erin Hills championship two years ago had on the area’s tourism
And that economy hasn’t slowed down since the last pro golfer turned
in his scorecard. West Bend’s room tax collection in 2018 soared to
nearly $390,000 — even more than the year prior. And while he
doesn’t discount the possibility that increasing room rates at area
hotels could have driven some of that jump, Farrell said he doubts
that’s the only explanation.
It’s likely the area is simply seeing more tourists. And that’s a
trend he and others would like to see continue.
It’s a trend that likely will continue, if a slate of big-time
events primed to draw visitors from out of town and out of the state
live up to their billing.
First, there’s the Democratic National Convention, which is
scheduled to bring a political spotlight on downtown Milwaukee next
year. And while Farrell has said he doesn’t expect any of the
convention attendees will book rooms in West Bend-area hotels, he
said other travelers headed to southeastern Wisconsin will likely
lodge here to avoid Milwaukee’s crowded inns.
Then, Erin Hills will get two more opportunities to reprise its role
as host to high-profile golfers. The U.S. Golf Association announced
recently it plans to stage the U.S. Mid-Amateur and U.S. Women’s
Open championships there in 2022 and 2025, respectively.
Farrell said the area has enough other attractions, though, to keep
tourism humming between those big events. He pointed to West Bend’s
Museum of Wisconsin Art, whose marketing efforts aimed at drawing
people to the area, he said, have shown results. Ditto for the
city’s Germanfest, West Bend’s annual ode to all things Teutonic
that’s slated to run for four days this August.
Then there’s the niche “geocaching” event that Farrell himself
helped launch more than a decade ago — and that’s grown into an
annual highlight for techie aficionados who turn out to compete in
local scavenger hunts using their GPS devices. The “Cache Ba$h,” as
it’s called, typically brings in between 1,500 and 2,000 attendees,
said Farrell. And they, like the golf fans, need a place to stay at
“That single event, which is just really three days,” he said,
“brings in a half million dollars of tourism dollars into the
community between hotel accommodations, restaurants, shopping, gas.
You name it.”
Besides the hotel room tax — a tax whose revenue goes toward funding
tourism marketing for West Bend — Rich Kasten said there are few
other ways to accurately measure tourism guests’ economic impacts on
the area. Still, the West Bend Common Council member — he also sits
on the city’s Tourism Commission — said even anecdotal evidence
points to a strong local tourism economy here.
“I think we are truly seeing it,” he said. “I think we’re doing
pretty well in our tourism.”