Milwaukee makeovers: Harley to Riverwalk

Milwaukee seemed to make a nice impression this month on travel writers from as far away as Texas and Louisiana. They were in Wisconsin for a Society of American Travel Writers conference at the elegant, four-diamond Pfister Hotel downtown.

“We are in the process of redefining our image and identity,” says Doug Neilson, who heads the Visit Milwaukee tourism office. Within the past five years, $1.5 billion has been spent on tourism; that includes the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Miller Park construction and Pabst Theater restoration.

So what’s new or noteworthy in Milwaukee? Plenty. Another $1 billion will be spent by 2008, For example:

* The avant-garde Third Ward retail district gains the Milwaukee Public Market on July 15. More than three dozen indoor and outdoor stalls for vendors will feature ethnic and locally grown foods.

The new food market will be open all year. There also will be a demonstration kitchen, named after the late Madame Liane Kuony of Fond du Lac, whose Postilion cooking school was highly regarded. The demo kitchen can seat 55.

* Construction of Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin, an aquatic attraction and laboratory, is ongoing near the lakefront Summerfest grounds. The new attraction is to open in early 2006.

A digital learning studio will make freshwater and saltwater environments accessible to both tourists and scholars.

* Milwaukee’s downtown RiverWalk is growing and eventually will extend to the Summerfest grounds. It follows the Milwaukee River about eight blocks downtown, from Juneau Street on south; the next step is to connect this walk with four blocks of the Third Ward (south of the I-794 bypass).

The area is becoming a place to congregate, listen to music, watch crew races and take boat tours. “We used to turn our back on the river,” notes RiverWalk spokeswoman Marsha Sehler, who says city planners learned a lot by studying what San Antonio, Cleveland and Chicago have done with their rivers.

* Under heavy discussion this month is the PabstCity project, which would turn a part of the former beer brewing complex into an entertainment hub. Anchors would include a House of Blues hotel/concert/restaurant space and Sega GameWorks (video and other interactive games).

City officials are debating whether the project, at I-43 and Hwy. 145, would take business away from downtown venues. Office and housing units are a part of the plan, too. Estimated completion date is 2007.

* The new Harley-Davidson Museum is to open at Sixth and Canal streets in early 2008, in time for the motorcycle manufacturer’s 105th birthday bash.

“Our vision is that this development will draw visitors from throughout the world to experience the people, products, culture and history of Harley-Davidson,” the company says online.

* The 17-acre Lakeshore State Park will be developed on a Lake Michigan island of dirt that came from the Deep Tunnel Project (for wastewater storage), behind the Marcus Amphitheater. It will have a couple of dozen overnight boat slips, walking trails and a fishing area.

A bridge will link the park to other lakefront trails, but no vehicles will be allowed. The park will be open all year, but an opening date has not been announced.

* Refurbishments at the 1927 art deco Ambassador Hotel, 2308 W. Wisconsin Ave., should be finished by the end of the month. It will have six floors of guest rooms, plus a restaurant and bistro.

* Eclectic Brady Street continues to be a fine mesh of ethnic pride and funky hangouts. Do you have an “I closed Wolski’s” bumper sticker, like I did in the 1970s?

The area is big on historical walking tours and community celebrations. The second annual Artisan Food Festival is 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. July 31, from Farwell to Astor streets. The Three Holy Women Parish Festival, always held on Father’s Day weekend, pays for the music of 10 bands through its Keg Klub (sponsors donate at least $60, to get their name associated with a keg of beer that’s tapped).

* One of the city’s best happy hours is 4-7 p.m. on weekdays at the sleek Coast restaurant, 931 E. Wisconsin Ave., with outdoor seating and a divine view of the Milwaukee Art Museum and Lake Michigan. Free and elaborate appetizers, served Wednesday and Friday, include endive topped with cream cheese and fig slices, mini cannoli drizzled with a raspberry sauce, crab cakes, fresh salsa and tortilla chips.

Specialty martinis – the Electric Lemonade to the Ruby Slipper – are $5 during happy hour. Want to experiment? Round up a few friends and order a tray of 24 “sippers” – small servings of several kinds of martinis – for $75.

To keep tabs on what else is happening in Milwaukee, go to www.milwaukee.org, or call (800) 554-1448.

I am a longtime newspaper journalist but a relatively new travel writer. The SATW gatherings are a fine opportunity to become more proficient in this profession, as well as learn about new parts of the country that are often overlooked by consumers.

This Central States gathering included free-lance writers, plus staffers from Rand McNally, the Chicago Tribune, Midwest Living, the Dallas Morning News and other publications. There are associate members, too, who represent destinations – Amarillo to Spain, in this case.

We compare notes against hype, impressions against experiences. When Wisconsin talks up its fish fries, for example, this group just seems to shrug. They’ve seen it before, at home, especially in Catholic churches during Lent.

A fish BOIL seems to be another story, although colleagues in Western Michigan will argue valiantly that these events aren’t unique to Door County.

It all reminded me of being in Minnesota last year and hearing that gooey campfire s’mores were that state’s invention. Not!

Toot: SATW has annual writing and photography contests. My 2004 summer series about diversions on the “other side” of Lake Michigan earned an honorable mention this month. A column about Roger Blake, the semi-truck driver who takes and transmits dynamic photos all over the country, placed third in the commentary category, behind columnists Betsa Marsh of the Cincinnati Enquirer and Harry Shattuck of the Houston Chronicle.

Roger, by the way, still is at it – shifting and clicking away. Go to www.viewpointphotos.com to see his work; send an e-mail to roger@viewpointphotos.com to get on his photo e-mail list – and tell him that Mary in Madison sent you.