Port’s ambassador to retire

During her 23 years on the job, Kathy Tank, executive director of the Port Washington Tourism Council, helped put the city on the map

KATHY TANK, who has greeted tourists from her desk at the Pebble House and been the friendly face of Port Washington’s tourism efforts for the last 23 years, will retire on June 30.
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Kathy Tank, executive director of the Port Washington Tourism Council, recalled one couple from Chicago she said reflects what makes the city great.

The couple stopped at the visitor center to get some recommendations about where to go for lunch and what to do after. Two hours later, they returned.

“The husband came through the door and said, ‘I love this place,’” she said. “He told me, ‘I had the best lunch. People smiled at me. They said hi to me. I’m going to tell all my friends about this, and I’m coming back.’

“That’s the kind of stuff I want to hear.”

Tank, who is credited with spurring the city’s tourism industry, has heard plenty of that kind of talk over the last 23 years, but that will soon end. She’s retiring June 30.

“I love my job and I love the people I work with,” Tank said. “But it’s time.”

She’s completed several big tasks she set for herself, her husband Rick retired at the end of 2021, and now it’s her turn.

“It just felt like the timing is right,” she said. “Look where Port Washington is right now. Our downtown is vibrant and strong and we have such a good mix of businesses. 

“People used to say why can’t we be more like Cedarburg. You don’t hear that anymore. Port Washington now is recognized more widely than it used to be as a destination. I feel like I’m leaving things in good hands.”

Tank has been the only executive director of the Tourism Council, charged with promoting the city and its lakefront and drawing visitors to the community.

“It’s not an accident that Kathy Tank’s 23-year tenure here coincided with the blooming of Port Washington tourism,” said Bill Schanen III, president of the Tourism Council.

“Besides effectively managing tourism marketing and the operation of the Visitor Center, Kathy was a respected ambassador for our city in her work with leaders of the state Department of Tourism and her efforts on behalf of the Wisconsin Harbor Towns organization and the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary.”

The Tourism Council is funded by revenue generated by the city room tax. Most of its budget of more than $100,000 a year is spent on marketing Port Washington throughout the Midwest as a tourist destination. 

Since 2001, the Tourism Council has awarded more than $400,000 in tourism grants to support visitor-attracting events put on by local organizations and projects such as the Niagara shipwreck exhibit on the harborwalk and the Lions Club fish cleaning station.

The Tourism Council created and maintains the website VisitPortWashington.com, which generates thousands of visitor inquiries each year.

That’s a far cry from when Tank began work in the city. 

“When I started, tourism was considered a very small piece of anything that provided an economic impact in the city,” she said.

But that has changed. Port has become a tourist town, leveraging its quaint downtown with its historic buildings and its scenic lakefront to become a true destination.

“My mission is to market the City of Port Washington as a whole, but there’s no denying the heart of the product is our downtown and the lakefront,” Tank said.

Fishing is a huge part of the tourism industry, she said, as are boating and the marina. 

“Public access to the lakefront has really grown since I started,” Tank said. “People love that they can come here and see the lake and walk to the lakefront in five minutes.”

Outdoor recreation is having a moment, and Port is uniquely positioned to take advantage of that with its walking and biking trails, lakefront, its many parks and beaches and other amenities.

“Birding has been really growing,” she said. “We have kayaking and paddleboarding.”

History buffs love to come to the city and visit such places as the Light Station, while the lighthouse and Exploreum draw those interested in the city’s maritime features.

Tank worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as it worked to create a national marine sanctuary that stretched from Port north to Two Rivers, and said the city is poised to draw on that as well.

“We’re the gateway to the sanctuary,” she said. “It will take some time, but it’s going to make a big impact here.”

The city’s investment in the marina has paid dividends, she said, but so too has private investment. 

When Duluth Trading Co. moved to Port, Tank said, it spurred a reinvestment in the downtown by local people.

“People thought, if they have the confidence to make this kind of investment in Port Washington, maybe I can too,” she said. “The mix of business we have is great.  People love the fact our downtown isn’t just a tourist downtown, it’s a real downtown with places residents and tourists patronize year-round.”

The residents are an often overlooked asset that the city has, Tank said.

“I can work night and day to get the word out about Port Washington, but if once people get here that promise of a warm and friendly community isn’t realized, they’re not going to come back.”

One measure of the increase in tourism is the amount of room tax collected from the city’s hotels, inns and Airbnbs. From the time she started, Tank said, the room tax revenue increased every year except three — after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, during the 2008-09 recession, when revenues plunged 22%, and in 2020, when the pandemic hit just a year after the state recorded record tourism numbers.

“Covid came and really took a hit on the whole tourism industry,” Tank said. “I was really worried about the viability of the whole organization.”

But through a variety of loans and grant programs, she said, “we made ourself whole.” By the end of last summer, tourism in Port was showing signs of recovery and potentially meeting the 2019 standard.

“Leisure travel is pretty much back. We had a pretty good summer last year,” Tank said, although business travel hasn’t returned to the same extent.

Her prediction for the future is simple — “Port’s got a great present and a great future ahead.”

But, she won’t be leading the charge. She’s planning to visit her daughter and friends out East, to take classes she didn’t have time for before, to do some volunteer work.

“I have a lot of interests,” she said.

Feedback:

Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

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
(262) 284-3494
 

CONNECT


User login