The roar of Indy cars once thrilled young and old at the Milwaukee Mile, but these days the only thing capturing anyone’s attention is the amount of money still owed on the now quiet West Allis track.
The Mile’s storied history made “America’s Legendary Oval” an institution on southeastern Wisconsin’s sports and cultural scene for more than 100 years. But lawsuits and debt, fallouts with promoters and the overall decline of racing itself has left the Mile without a major racing event this year and nothing on the books for 2017.
Although some have not given up hope, there is no sign that racing will ever return to the track. The last organized race at the Mile, which once hosted racing legends Mario Andretti, Rusty Wallace and A.J. Foyt, was the now defunct Milwaukee IndyFest in July 2015.
“Racing is dead (at the Milwaukee Mile), but everyone is afraid to say it because talk radio will kill you,” said John Stibal, West Allis community development director.
Vacant land is precious in landlocked West Allis, where the 56-acre racetrack and grandstand sits, encompassing more than one-quarter of the 190-acre Wisconsin State Fair Park.
To the north of the Mile, along I-94, sits a parcel of the most highly visible land in Milwaukee County just east of the busiest freeway interchange in the state.
During the 11 days of the Wisconsin State Fair, that concrete stretch is used for parking and the midway. In the fall, a temporary Halloween store in a giant inflated pumpkin sits on the site and faces the freeway, with 148,000 cars passing by it daily.
The rest of the year, the site along the freeway is an ocean of unused concrete, other than the eastern portion that is used as an RV park, which provided $401,568 to State Fair Park in revenue last fiscal year.
The portion of the State Fair property along the freeway lies in the city of Milwaukee, while the rest of the fairgrounds is within West Allis.
The underutilized land along the freeway and the lack of racing at the Milwaukee Mile raises questions about the future of those sites. There are at least three competing visions for the future of the Mile and the State Fair Park land along the freeway.
The city of West Allis included a “grand vision” for State Fair Park in its 2030 comprehensive plan. The bold project includes working with the city of Milwaukee to redevelop 127.5 acres of the park, including the Milwaukee Mile site, into a mixed-use development that would include a public plaza, 390,000 square feet of retail, 1.9 million square feet of office and 200,000 square feet of destination entertainment.
The city of Milwaukee would like to see a plan in place for the parcel along the interstate in its jurisdiction, so if a development opportunity presents itself, the necessary parties are prepared. Popular Swedish furniture retailer IKEA hoped to open its first Wisconsin store on the site and spent more than a year negotiating with representatives from the state, the fair, Milwaukee and West Allis in 2014 and 2015 before ultimately walking away from the deal. Instead, IKEA announced in May it would open a store in Oak Creek (see sidebar on page 18).
The Wisconsin State Fair Park board, still saddled with nearly $12 million in debt from the $19.1 million addition and renovation to the Milwaukee Mile’s grandstand in 2002, is hoping to bring racing back to the track.
The oval opened as a private horse-racing track in 1876 and was later purchased by the Agricultural Society of the State of Wisconsin to create the permanent Wisconsin State Fair Park site.
[caption id="attachment_148211" align="alignright" width="485"] The Milwaukee Mile from West Greenfield Avenue and South 76th Street looking north.[/caption]
The Mile hosted its first dirt-track automobile race in 1903, designating it the oldest operating motor speedway in the world. By the 1930s, the track was hosting open-wheeled races and by 1947, it became a tradition to race there on the weekend immediately following the Indianapolis 500.
NASCAR began racing at the Mile in 1984, and by 2002, it became clear the track needed upgrades to continue to attract NASCAR races. NASCAR’s truck series and minor league stock car circuit held races at the Mile.
From the get-go, the $19.1 million grandstand renovation project appeared to be doomed. Two days before the start of the 2003 racing season, the State Fair Park board announced it was terminating its racing contract so the Milwaukee Mile could be managed and promoted internally.
A private consulting firm hired in 2000 by State Fair Park projected the new grandstand would generate a net loss of $197,500 in the first year of operation but would report a net gain of $363,000 by the second year, which would increase to $722,400 by the ninth year.
Those assumptions were based on selling the naming rights for the grandstand for $10 million, hosting six major events each year and collecting concession revenue averaging $25 per person at each event. The naming rights were never sold.
According to a financial audit of State Fair Park conducted in September 2003 by the state Legislative Audit Bureau, the six major events per year goal had been difficult to achieve. The industry average for concession revenue is only $6 to $13 per person, according to the report.
State Fair Park incurred a net loss of more than $341,700 in the 2002 racing season.
During fiscal year 2015-’16, State Fair Park generated $346,733 on race track events by renting out the track and 35,000-seat facility, $78,267 less than it budgeted. That year, State Fair Park paid the state $3.2 million in debt service on the Mile and the 200,000-square-foot Wisconsin Exposition Center, which was built for $37.8 million in 2002 and still has about $13.1 million in debt on it.
The Expo Center generated $3 million in revenue for the fair in 2015-’16, bringing in the second highest amount of revenue for State Fair Park, behind the actual 11-day event, which netted $19.87 million in fiscal 2015-’16. Total State Fair Park revenue in fiscal 2015-’16 was $25.2 million.
In March, the State Fair Park board sold section YY of the Milwaukee Mile bleachers on the government surplus auction website GovDeals, removing about 1,100 seats at the end of the track.
Former State Fair Park executive director Rick Frenette, said he would have liked to see the racetrack removed and the space used for expanded fair operations, but the political ramifications were too difficult to overcome.
[caption id="attachment_148210" align="alignright" width="529"] A rendering of West Allis' redevelopment vision for the Mile, from the same view, at West Greenfield Avenue and South 79th Street, looking north over a re-opened Honey Creek.[/caption]
“Politicians convinced other politicians this would make millions of dollars but that didn’t happen,” Frenette said. “This is an old tradition and there are a few thousand diehard race fans left. No one is going to be the one to step up and say, ‘Tear it down.’ In the corporate world, this would be an easy thing. You just have to look at how much money you are losing and give up. But in the political world, that doesn’t happen.”
Frenette ran the Wisconsin State Fair for six years before being fired by the State Fair Park board of directors in May for giving about 30 employees pay increases.
John Yingling, Wisconsin State Fair Park board chairman, said the decision to tear down the Mile or use the land for something other than racing is not as easy as many people imagine.
If State Fair Park destroys the track, the debt owed to the state to build the grandstand must be paid back in full, and without another revenue option in the pipeline, that isn’t feasible, Yingling said.
The debt on the Mile will be paid off by 2030. Payments fluctuate slightly, but between 2017 and 2023, the State Fair will make an annual payment to the state of $1.94 million on the grandstand. Payments decrease substantially for the final seven years of debt service, to less than $100,000 beginning in 2025.
Yingling recently formed three committees to look at specific issues regarding the fair: land and property, racing and auctions.
He is serving on both the land and property committee and the racing committee. Yingling believes there is a good chance the Milwaukee Mile can attract races in the Xfinity Series or Menards ARCA Racing Series, which are minor league NASCAR racing series.
“We lost a race this year. We thought we’d have Andretti (Sports Marketing as a promoter), but Indyfest ended,” Yingling said. “It’s a little over $1 million to get (an IndyCar race). It’s pay to play. We know we’re behind the eight ball, but there is history here, and the debt. The thing about it is, we’re not going to retire (the racetrack).”
Racing hasn’t just slowed down at the Milwaukee Mile. Other races across the country have seen attendance decline. NASCAR stopped releasing attendance figures in 2012. That year about 140,000 people attended the Daytona 500, down from 182,200 in 2011. IndyCar racing has also had to fight to stay relevant with declining television ratings and decreasing sponsorship.
Tim Osterbeck, organizer of Save the Mile, a group of about 1,200 people formed in 2008 to bring attention to the track, said there is still some optimism regarding the Mile because the property is state-owned.
[caption id="attachment_148209" align="alignright" width="491"] A rendering of West Allis' redevelopment vision for part of State Fair Park, including the Milwaukee Mile, from I-94, looking south.[/caption]
“For good or bad, that offers some level of protection,” Osterbeck said. “The problem is, the State Fair board is just lost in the woods because they are fair people and successful business people who don’t know much about racing. Auto racing is a specific breed.”
Another issue is the differing opinions on what is best for the Mile and grandstand itself, Osterbeck said.
NASCAR doesn’t want to race at a venue that doesn’t have a garage nearby where pit crews can fix the cars. The Mile doesn’t have a garage.
“This goes back to the 1980s,” Osterbeck said. “(Former Wisconsin Gov.) Tommy Thompson said we’re going to completely rebuild the facility and do all of this amazing stuff, but over time, everything withered away. That’s still how it has been, even this year; something could have been done to save the IndyCar race for 2016. It’s just a lot of missed opportunities.”
Gov. Scott Walker declined to comment on the future of the state-owned Milwaukee Mile. Walker’s spokesman referred all questions regarding the Mile to the Department of Administration.
“The grounds just hosted another successful Fair and for the fourth consecutive year drew more than 1 million people,” said Steve Michels, spokesman for the department. “For 165 years, the State Fair has been a celebrated Wisconsin tradition and the state will continue to work with the Fair to ensure its growth and success in the future.”
Michels declined to comment on the future of the Milwaukee Mile specifically.
Stibal doesn’t buy the argument that the track needs to be preserved until the debt is paid off.
“That’s a procedural issue between the State Fair and the state. If there isn’t anybody sitting in those seats to generate revenue, the best they can do is sell the land to get some cash to pay back the loan,” Stibal said.
West Allis officials believe they have just the plan to do so. Five years ago, the city floated a proposal to redevelop 127.5 acres of State Fair Park land, 85 of which are located within West Allis. The centerpiece of the plan removes the Milwaukee Mile and activates Honey Creek, which is currently channeled underground, and to create a riverwalk along the creek.
“We didn’t want racing to officially be declared dead with no plan,” Stibal said. “So that’s what we did, created a plan that was bold, exciting and massive. We don’t want to see the land sold to Kmart.”
The first phase of the West Allis plan would be the development of two mixed-use buildings and a public plaza along Greenfield Avenue, just south of the newly-created riverwalk.
The plan, which envisions development occurring over 20 to 30 years, would be similar to Bayshore Town Center, the Historic Third Ward and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, according to West Allis officials.
“This highly valuable site, which could contain over $1.2 billion in development value, has the potential to accommodate nearly 8 million square feet of future improvements, with inviting public open space that could bring life to the area year-round,” according to the city’s plans.
The plans, however, were never widely publicized. City officials presented them to the State Fair Park board and were met with resistance.
“How does West Allis get to put together a development plan for our property?” Frenette said. “They’re convinced the track won’t be there. We park 3,000 cars a day there (during the fair), plus there is a stage (in front of the grandstand for the fair’s concerts).”
Stibal said he was surprised State Fair Park hasn’t been willing to explore its options for the Mile site. However, he did acknowledge the loss of parking revenue would be one major impediment.
“Like any good business deal, we could structure that into the transaction,” Stibal said. “We can’t afford to build a parking structure for 11 days (of the Fair), but everyone has to be made whole. No one has sat down to structure the deal, because we never got that far, but there are great minds out there and it could be done.”
Stibal also knows that a redevelopment of 127 acres of State Fair Park land might not be feasible. He would like State Fair Park to identify its plan for the highest and best use of its land. And then he is hoping the board and the city of West Allis could meet to see if there is a way to collaborate.
“We’re not saying what should be done, we’re saying this is what our vision is, and it is pretty massive. Now, let’s see a counter,” Stibal said. “We can make anything in our city but land. The visibility there is huge, and the type of high-end jobs and high-end development we could bring would be absolutely phenomenal.”
Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of Milwaukee’s Department of City Development, knows the benefits development of the site along the freeway could have, but also realizes the city is at the mercy of the state.
“There is tremendous freeway access and that piece of land could have some potential benefits for development if done in concert with State Fair’s long-term plans, as well as the city of West Allis,” Marcoux said. “We’re cognizant that the land (along the freeway) is in the city of Milwaukee and we want to continue to have discussions with (State Fair and West Allis) so if development could occur, we are ready for it.”
For now, Yingling is focused on the things he believes he and his board can control at the Fair Park. He would like his land and property committee to take a look at possibly reconfiguring the Westside Marketplace, which he believes is underutilized, and the Swine Barn, both located along 84th Street.
Also on his wish list: a second Coliseum. The current Coliseum is used so much during the fair that if a show gets behind schedule on weekends, draft horses are still being shown at 12:30 a.m., Yingling said.
There are also other options now that a portion of the grandstand has been sold, including moving the children’s rides to that area of the fair to separate them from the adult midway.
These decisions have to be made by the end of September if State Fair Park wants to be included in the state’s 2017-’19 biennial budget. Any capital expense more than $761,000 has to be approved by the state Legislature.
The State Fair Park board has until the end of the month to decide whether or not to make a capital budget request. If they don’t, they are out of the game again until 2019-’21.
What State Fair Park isn’t planning, Yingling said, is a request to remove the Milwaukee Mile.
“Racing used to be five stock car events and two Indy races (at the Mile each year). That will never happen again,” Yingling said. “People say just take it out, it’s just concrete. But state government is not going to let you tear up and destroy something that has debt on it.”
[caption id="attachment_148213" align="alignnone" width="770"] Milwaukee Mile[/caption]
History of the Milwaukee Mile
1876 - A one-mile oval track is built for horse-track racing.
1891 - The Agricultural Society of the State of Wisconsin purchases the land to create Wisconsin State Fair Park.
1903 - The Milwaukee Mile begins hosting auto races.
1930s - Grandstand is rebuilt, replacing original grandstand built in 1914.
1929-1967 - Tom Marchese promotes races at the Mile and the track prospers.
1980 - The first race sanctioned by Championship Auto Racing Teams is held at the track.
1984 - NASCAR makes its debut in Milwaukee with the Busch Late Model Sportsman series.
2002 - $19.1 million in upgrades begin at the track and are completed in time for the 2003 Centennial Season. The new grandstand holds nearly 40,000 people.
2003-2005 - State Fair Park takes over race promotion at the Mile.
2006-2008 - Milwaukee Mile Holdings serves as promoter, losing between $1.2 and $2.1 million per year.
2008 - Save the Mile website launches.
2009 - Wisconsin Motorsports LLC serves as promoter; NASCAR leaves at the end of the year. Indy Car goes to Road America in Elkhart Lake.
2010 - First year that no races are scheduled at the track.
2011 - AB Promotions takes over “weekend rental” for IndyCar Milwaukee 225.