Tourism industry alive and well in Port, Grafton

Campaigns to highlight their proximity to the lake and bike trail, as well as events and shopping pay dividends for communities

Wisconsin Secretary of Tourism Sara Meaney (left) and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes spoke at Atlas BBQ in Grafton while visiting the Paramount Plaza last month. Photos by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

 As tourism season kicks off, Port Washington and Grafton are gearing up for visitors.

“If you talk to any of the businesses in Port Washington, they would probably say they wouldn’t be here without the tourism season,” Kathy Tank, executive director of the Port Washington Tourism Council, said.

Tank has been with the Tourism Council since 1999. When she started, the organization focused its marketing efforts on empty nesters and retirees, but over the last few years it has been attracting young families and people who enjoy outdoor recreational activities.

“We’ve definitely diversified our outreach to various demographics,” Tank said, noting the Tourism Council previously promoted the city in print and radio advertising but has now expanded to national websites like and social media sites such as Instagram.  

Based on visitor guide requests and website analytics, Tank said, 50% of tourism in Port Washington is from Illinois, 40% from other parts of Wisconsin and 10% from states like Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota.  

She said some of the biggest draws to the city are the marina, charter fishing, the arts and shopping.

“The city has been working continuously to make those things more easily accessible to the average person,” she said. “With all of those things combined, there has been more of an uptick for people to come to Port Washington.”

Executive Director of the Grafton Area Chamber of Commerce Pam King agrees that there is a growing number of tourists visiting the area.

“We are really in the heart of the county, so that makes us a great place to stay and take day trips to other parts of the area,” King said, noting the Chamber doesn’t directly promote tourism but its non-profit tourism branch, Celebrate Grafton, manages the marketing effort.

King said that Grafton has experienced a significant increase in visitor traffic since 2002 because of big-box stores. She also said the Milwaukee River, parks and the Interurban Trail are natural attractions that bring in tourists.

Celebrate Grafton and the Tourism Council are funded through room tax dollars collected from hotels. In 2017, state legislation mandated that 70% of the hotel sales taxes be spent on tourism promotion, King said.

Prior to the legislation, Grafton received about 1% from room taxes.

Last year, Port Washington collected $304,000 in room tax from two hotels and two bed and breakfast inns and Grafton received about $250,000 from three hotels. King said she anticipates Grafton will realize a greater increase in room tax revenue this year because one of the hotels, TownePlace Suites, opened last July.

In Port Washington, The Harborview hotel is undergoing a multi-million renovation, which includes upgrades to its rooms, as well as moving the restaurant from the basement to the main level and a new pool area. The renovations are to be completed by the end of the month.

Harborview General Manager Cathy Wilger said all 93 rooms at the hotel are booked on weekends from mid-May through October.

While Port Washington’s proximity to Lake Michigan is a draw for visitors, its not the only one, Wilger said. A number of hotel guests come to the city for shopping, corporate meetings and special events like Fish Day, she said.

“It’s not just the lake that brings people here,” Wilger said. “Tourists won’t come back if there’s nothing else to do.”

King said Grafton is also making improvements to its assets to draw more visitors. The village is planning to create Blues Marker Park near 12th Avenue and Falls Road to showcase its blues heritage with Paramount Records.

She also said Grafton benefits from neighboring communities because it has hotel space used by people visiting Port Washington and Cedarburg.

“We’re lucky to take advantage of those communities and to be their neighbors. We always want heads in beds,” King said. “We need to grow tourism intrinsically in the community, as well as take advantage of what’s around us.”

Last month, Wisconsin Tourism Secretary Sara Meaney and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes visited the Paramount Plaza Walk of Fame in Grafton and discussed the latest economic impact figures for tourism.

In 2018, Ozaukee County improved its ranking by one spot, coming in at 27th of the state’s 72 counties in terms of tourism impact, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

Last year, the county had $21.6 billion in total business sales, a 6.53% increase from 2017. Visitors generated $12.9 million in state and local taxes during 2018, an increase of $600,000 from the previous year.

Communities along the Interurban Trail, among them Port and Grafton, recently received a $35,000 joint-effort-marketing grant from the Department of Tourism to support the bike trail. The grant requires 25% in matching funds from each community, which are already substantially covered by groups involved with the project, King said.

“Biking is one of the biggest new trending activities in the country,” King said, noting Celebrate Grafton is developing a new website for the trail.

Tank agreed.

“Every year, biking gets bigger and bigger,” she said. “That’s something we’re all going to be able to benefit from.”

Tank said stores around downtown Port Washington are aware of the growth in outdoor activities because several recreational businesses have opened up in recent years, such as ZuZu Pedals, Duluth Trading and Sherper’s sporting goods store.

Tank and King said they anticipate a big tourism season in 2020 when the Democratic National Convention is held in Milwaukee and Whistling Straits Golf Course in Haven will host the Ryder Cup.

“Because of our proximity to those events, we are in the perfect position,” Tank said.




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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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