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Milwaukee saw an increase of small businesses during pandemic, economic recovery on the mend

Sherman Phoenix
Simone Cazares
Sherman Phoenix

Many small business owners in Wisconsin weren’t sure if they would make it through 2020 and 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to close their doors forever. And many feared their communities wouldn’t be able to recover.

Michael Gousha, senior advisor in law and public policy, and John Johnson, lubar research fellow of Marquette University Law School's Lubar Center, wrote an article for the Journal Sentinel about the worst-case scenario for Milwaukee's economy — that, thankfully — did not happen.

Gousha explains when COVID-19 vaccinations started to roll out, the secretary of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation worried the state would lose 20%-30% of small businesses. However, the city of Milwaukee actually had seen growth in the number of businesses in 2020 and 2021.

In collaboration with the city of Milwaukee City Clerk's office, Gousha and Johnson created a dataset looking at license applications to find where new businesses were opening. Johnson describes that new bars and coffee shops struggled across the city. But the number of caterers and food trucks increased.

Johnson says that the downtown area restaurants, bars and coffee shops took a big hit. But in the 15th District, for example, there was significant growth in small businesses.

"A lot of that we attribute to the Upstart Kitchen, food restaurant incubator that opened up there," he says. Also, Johnson says that Sherman Pheonix, a business hub for Black entrepreneurs, played a part in the increase of businesses in the area.

Their datasets found that in Milwaukee County, unemployment is still high.

"So while you hear about this tight labor market in Wisconsin and in the nation as a whole, we actually don’t really see that in the data for the city of Milwaukee where there are still more unemployed people now than there were before COVID," says Johnson.

And ultimately, when looking towards the future economic recovery of Milwaukee — both unemployment and the number of new businesses need to be looked at.

Gousha says, "One of the things that we'll be looking at is to see which jobs come back, or you know, some of them are coming back rather slowly. But do they come back to the levels they once were at? And I think that's a real question for Milwaukee."

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Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
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