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The Cold Filtered Ramblings of Gene Mueller

You earned it--you keep it: Don Smiley, big dollars and Milwaukee's uncanny ablity to knock a good thing

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Own it, Don Smiley.  With pride.

The Journal/Sentinel's Dan Bice says the Summerfest director made over three quarters of a million dollars during the last year for which numbers are available, a rise of 175% since Smiley first came to Milwaukee six years ago.   That's better than the mayor and several other local elected officials combined,   Bice points out that Smiley even out-earns President Barack Obama.

With apologies to Babe Ruth, Smiley had a better year.

Milwaukee World Festivals picks up the tab and it's director, Ted Kellner, is quick to defend Smiley's paycheck, saying it's very much in line with what other executives in Smiley's spot would be knocking down.   Granted, Summerfest isn't your typical operation--they're not making widgets on the lakefront, they're trying to extract dollars from customers--but the numbers don't lie: the Big Gig is a big deal with a ton of moving parts, a raft of constituencies that need to be satisfied and a customer base that needs to be cultivated.    Then there are the ground themselves, leased from the city but gussied up on Smiley's watch to the tune of just under $60 million.

And, it's all been done on the relative up-and-up.  Mayor Tom Barrett and others want more accountability but the fact is everyone knew what the rules were beforehand.   Kellner admits he didn't think Smiley wouldn't hit all the marks that would grant him the $340 thousand-plus bonus he snagged the last year of the deal, the one that so grossly put his salary over the top but hey, more power to him.  He did it, so cut the check.

Smiley isn't commenting, which may be a mistake.   Ignoring the story makes it sound as if he's ashamed of his take-home, but on the other hand there's something to be said for ignoring the bluster and letting it fade away.

And, any mention of Summerfest--no matter what the issue--brings the usual gaggle of naysayers who use the "comments" section beneath Bice's story to unleash unsigned bile against the event in particular and the city as a whole. "Besides the stink, the gangs, the drunks, the pickpockets and urban "youtes" I now have yet another reason to avoid the city," writes one big thinker.

Summerfest works.   It did under Bo Black and her unique we-suck-if-we-don't-draw-a-million mindset and it does under Smiley who's tricked up the grounds, refocused the mission and, for the most part, made vendors happy.   800,000 paying customers can't be wrong, can they?

The Big Gig's biggest problems?   It's a target for eager politicians who want more control (remember Mayor John  Norquist and his epic tussles with Black?), and it tries to be a lot of things to a whole bunch of people which means you'll always end up teeing a few off.    Want a cheaper beer as you listen to Chasin' Mason?    There's probably a church festival down the street that has your name on it.    If you want world class entertainment for a reasonable price at a one-of-a-kind venue with a bazillion side stages catering to every need, you know where to go.

And, if you can find him while you're down there, shake Don Smiley's hand and say job well done.   He might even buy you a beer.   He's got the money.



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