Madison room tax revenue makes a pandemic comeback

Back in 2020, as fall came to a close, Harmony Bar and Grill feared their doors would have to close, too.
Published: May. 10, 2023 at 10:41 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The COVID-19 emergency may be ending, and there are signs pointing to a pandemic comeback. However, Madison businesses are still feeling the lasting effects.

Back in 2020, as fall came to a close, Harmony Bar and Grill feared their doors would have to close, too.

“We’re starting to worry whether or not we will make it through the winter. I don’t want to see it close because I love it. And I know a lot of people feel the same way,” said former Harmony owner Brennan Nardi back in November of 2020.

The eastside gem on Atwood Avenue made changes, cutting staff from 24 to five, and switching from cash only to credit cards to run their new carry-out food venture. One bartender even set up a GoFundMe to make it through.

Harmony Bar and Grill
Harmony Bar and Grill(NBC15)

Fast forward to now, Harmony has made it through. New co-owner Pam Barrett explained that was in part thanks to one of the biggest business lessons she took from the pandemic: diversify.

“This isn’t just a bar or restaurant or music venue. It’s a community center for a lot of people,” Barret explained. “That’s why we took the leap and bought the place in September because we had been coming here for 30 years, and we didn’t want to see this place become a victim of the pandemic.”

Unique restaurants like Harmony Bar and Grill in Madison’s eclectic neighborhoods are what drive tourists to the city, according to Destination Madison’s Rob Gard. It’s those new travelers his tourism group targeted during the pandemic slump.

“We feel really confident we are headed in a good direction,” Gard said. “What we are seeing now, we saw towards the second half of last year, is a return of meetings and events and a decent level, but a big boost in leisure travelers.”

It’s a boost that has now brought Madison’s room tax revenue past pre-pandemic levels.

Room tax revenue is the money the city gets when people stay at hotels. From July to September 2019, which was before the pandemic reached Wisconsin, Madison pocketed $6,250,309 in room tax revenue, a record setting year. Then, in 2020, the pandemic hit the city’s economy hard, and that number plummeted to $1,556,656, less than a quarter of what it was the previous year.

In 2021, numbers started trending in the right direction, more than tripling to $5,019,580. Come 2022 and that number jumped $6,733,483, topping the 2019 record.

From October to December, Quarter 4, 2022 numbers dipped just below pre-pandemic levels of 2019. And in Quarter 1, 2023, the numbers rebounded right back above pre pandemic levels in 2019, dipping the lowest in 2021.

“We are pleased to see how things are coming along so far and know there’s still a lot more work to do,” said Gard.

Restaurant owners agree that more needs to be done.

“We’re really not post-pandemic yet. It’s still very much a touch and go sort of thing,” said Barrett.

They say the work will take the whole community to treat the lingering pandemic symptoms to keep their doors open.

“Come out, come out for dinner, come out for lunch. We need you!” said Barrett.

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