Pettit National Ice Center

Pettit National Ice Center | Sport$Biz Blog | Martin J. GreenbergUnbeknownst to many outside the Olympic community, Wisconsin has a tremendous history and tradition of speed skating. In fact, in 1928, Oconomowoc, just outside of Milwaukee, held the first United States Olympic speed skating time trials.[1] And since 1935, “the West Allis Speed Skating Club has trained skaters and sponsored local, regional, and national meets in the Milwaukee area.”[2] West Allis was actually nicknamed the “Skating Capital of Wisconsin” because the West Allis Club won so many races by 1949.[3] Milwaukee became the new home for Olympic speed skating when the outdoor Wisconsin Olympic Ice Rink opened on December 17, 1966.[4] Due to the success of the American speed skating program in the mid-1980’s, the outdoor Wisconsin Olympic Ice Rink earned the nickname, “Wisconsin’s Gold Mine.”[5] With the success that the American speed skating team brought to the Wisconsin Olympic Ice Rink, local business leaders and Olympic skating organizations began planning an indoor Olympic style facility in the late 1980s.[6] The new facility would provide skaters with the opportunity to train year round.[7] And so, “the State [of Wisconsin] agreed to support the idea and constructed an indoor rink on the site of the old outdoor track.”[8] The new, state-supported training facility opened on December 31, 1992 and was named for Wisconsin philanthropists Lloyd and Jane Pettit.[9]

“The Pettit National Ice Center [(Pettit)] is a 3,000 seat official United States Olympic training facility that features a 400-meter indoor speed skating ice oval, along with two international size ice rinks used for hockey, figure skating and short track speed skating.”[10] The Pettit opened in December of 1992,[11] and the land and facility was owned by the State of Wisconsin, “but [was] leased to a nonprofit corporation, Pettit National Ice Center, Inc., that operates the facility.”[12] The ice center is located on the Wisconsin State Fair Park grounds at the corner of South 84th Street and I-94 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.[13] The Pettit National Ice Center Corporation governing board is

Charles Henderson | Pettit National Ice Center | Sport$Biz Blog | Martin J. Greenbergan eleven-member board that includes five members appointed by the Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation (a non-profit foundation that attempts to support initiatives that enhance the quality of life in the Milwaukee) . . . a designee appointed by the Governor, the Secretary of Commerce, and four members selected by the rest of the Pettit Center Board.[14]

Charles Henderson was the Chairman of the Pettit Center Board at the time of my service as Chairman of the Wisconsin State Fair Board and continues to this day acting in such capacity.[15]

The Pettit is the only indoor and at sea-level oval in the United States where American athletes can train and it was considered “mission critical” when preparing for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia (because the ice rink in Sochi was at sea level).[16] “All of the U.S. speed skaters who have participated in the last six Winter Olympics have competed or trained at the Pettit Center.”[17] These athletes include “hometown heroes Chris Witty, Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair” as well as other medal winners such as Apolo Anton Ohno, Shani Davis, and Chad Hedrick.[18]

The Pettit is one of only thirty indoor 400 meter ovals in the world and is an official United States Olympic Training Facility.[19] The Pettit has hosted numerous skating competitions, including the national short and long track speed skating championships, the world speed skating championships, and the United States Olympic skating time trials.[20] Olympic Gold Medalists Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen were some of the Pettit’s first ice rink skaters.[21]

The facility comprises about 200,000 square feet, of which 150,000 is an arena, 97,000 square feet of total ice, two international size rinks for hockey, figure skating, and short track speed skating, a 450-meter, three lane jogging track surrounding the ice oval, a 150-capacity Hall of Fame lounge that overlooks the ice arena, and a skating rental facility with figure skating, hockey, and speed skates for rental to the public.[22]

Section 42.11 of the Wisconsin Statutes states that the Olympic Ice Training Center at the Park is the “sole responsibility” of the State Fair Park Board, “including the land and facilities related to its operation.”[23] The statutes go on to state “that no person may use the facility without board approval and authorizes the board to enter into a lease with a nonprofit corporation to operate and maintain the Center.”[24]

The Biennial Budget for the period between 1991 and 1993 authorized the construction of the Pettit for $12.1 million (with “$8.1 million in state self-amortizing general obligation bonds and $4 million in donations”).[25]  The actual cost to construct the Pettit was “$13.3 million and the [S]tate [of Wisconsin] issued $9.3 million in program revenue supported general obligation bonds.”[26] The State Fair Park Board executed a lease agreement with the Pettit whereby the Pettit is responsible “for monthly payments sufficient to pay the annual debt service and costs of the facility. Any deficiency in monthly lease payments becomes a draw on general State Fair Park operations.”[27] From 2006 to 2013, the “[a]nnual debt service was expected to average $900,000.”[28]

In February of 2003, Governor Jim Doyle appointed me to be Chairman of the Wisconsin State Fair Park Board. I fully realized the challenging task before me as the State Fair operation was amassing losses at a record pace and had amassed a substantial deficit. Only the Wisconsin State Fair itself was a profitable enterprise. The Milwaukee Mile, Pettit, and Wisconsin Exposition Center were all operating at losses and deficits.

My best accomplishment as Chairman of that Board was to, in conjunction with Chairman Charles Henderson, help emancipate the Pettit from State bondage and obligations. At the time of my Chairmanship, the Pettit was not able to meet the monthly lease payments that would cover the monthly debt service, therefore causing deficits and losses to State Fair Park’s bottom line. In order to keep an asset viable that bears the name of one of Milwaukee’s most charitable families, it was determined that the only way to financially cure the situation was to permit the Pettit to purchase the land and building on which it was located and utilized, and try to operate independently of the encumbrances and debts that had caused the prior financial meltdown.

In June of 2006, the Wisconsin State Fair Park Board approved the sale of the Pettit for $5.6 million to its non-profit corporation.[29] The Board authorized the sale of the Pettit and approximately 9.35 acres of land (which included adjacent land as well as parking areas) to the Pettit National Ice Center, Inc.[30] The State Fair Park Board also agreed to forgive about one million dollars in past due rent that the Pettit had accumulated during the prior four year period.[31]

“This agreement is good for everyone involved,” said Gov. Jim Doyle, Chairman of the Building Commission. “It means that Pettit National Ice Center will continue to operate the site as a premier speedskating training center for American athletes.” Doyle said the proceeds from the sale will be used to pay off the State Fair Park’s remaining debt of about $6.5 million.[32]

The State Fair Park Board action was ultimately approved by the State Building Commission.[33] There were several conditions and covenants attached to the agreement to sell, including:

  1. “As long as the Pettit is owned by the Pettit National Ice Center, Inc. the ice center must be primarily used as an ice skating rink and training facility for recreational and competitive skating purposes.”[34]
  2. “The sales agreement and transfer deed would include a provision that would not permit the Pettit National Ice Center, Inc., to subdivide the property, sell it in part, or transfer a partial fee title interest of the ice center.”[35]
  3. “The sales agreement and transfer deed would include a provision that would allow the Building Commission and State Fair Park Board the right to approve leases that extend beyond two years (excluding those leases that would terminate if the property were repurchased by the Park).”[36]
  4. “The sales agreement and transfer deed would be required to include a provision that provides the State Fair Park Board with a parking easement for 225 vehicles each year during the 11-day State Fair, and at other times when the Pettit has extra capacity. In return, the [Pettit] Ice Center would receive a similar easement for 225 vehicles for 11 days during the year when it needs additional parking and when the Park has extra capacity.”[37]
  5. The “sales agreement or transfer deed would be required to provide the State Fair Park with access to, and an easement for, land and a service road that contain State Fair Park signs and equipment.”[38]
  6. “The Building Commission action required the sales agreement to specify that State Fair Park would have the first right to purchase the ice center, at a price of $5.3 million, should Pettit National Ice Center, Inc. decide to discontinue its ice rink programming operations or decide to sell the ice center.”[39]

The transaction was ultimately closed on January 5, 2007. In finalizing documents for the sale, as Chairman I stated that “January 5, 2007 will mark a new era in the history of the Pettit National Ice Center. [It’s] the date that the Pettit has been released from financial bondage. The emancipation, if you will, from state bondage. This has put the Pettit in a better place.”[40]

In response to a question as to what the restructuring of the agreement between the Pettit and the Wisconsin State Fair has meant to the Pettit, Executive Director Randy Dean stated as follows:

Evidence of a “new,” rejuvenated Pettit Center is easily recognized by all who come to the Center to skate, train for elite speedskating, play hockey, use the run/walk track, attend meetings, or just visit. The 2007 restructuring of the agreement between the Pettit Center and Wisconsin State Fair Park generated a paradigm shift in the Center’s capability to strengthen its facility and programming.

The lobby was totally redecorated to attractively, even boldly, highlight its core sports, reflect the Center’s connection to the community, and honor its founding and construction. The Hall of Fame Room was renovated and is a now a great space for meetings, featuring a unique, impressive view of the arena. The locker rooms are on a cycle for new flooring and upgraded fixtures. Skate rental and concessions areas have been freshened to be more welcoming to the public. The party area was completely redecorated, emphasizing the various sports and providing a distinct atmosphere for birthday parties and meetings. A new LED-based, video board has been installed to inform and engage skaters and visitors.  Highly efficient LED lighting has been installed throughout the arena, lobby, and lower level to provide better lighting at lower cost.

Three years ago, the run/walk track was replaced, expanded, and upgraded to three lanes, plus 4800 square feet of rubberized surface was installed for a brand new cross-training area.

Behind the scenes, but certainly critical to improving the efficiency of the Center’s plant operations, a heat recovery system was custom designed and developed to capture waste heat from the compressors in the refrigeration process and recycle it to heat the arena, reducing our consumption of natural gas. Rockwell Automation upgraded the operating systems to maximize the precise control of refrigeration and HVAC operations, saving the Pettit Center about $70,000 annually.

In financial terms, since 2007, the Center has reduced its debt burden from $3.9 million to less than $1.3 million, a decrease of 67%! This has been accomplished while we have increased Program Revenues almost 30% to more than $2.6 million over the same period and increased fiscal year end cash balances by more than 800%! This is testimony to the diligent attention to top line growth and strict operating cost management, leveraged by having the resources to make prudent, impactful investments in the Pettit Center’s physical plant, operations, and staff.

The Pettit Center is delighted to welcome nearly 425,000 visitors annually, host over 2,300 hockey practices and games, teach more than 2,000 individuals in Skating School, have almost 37,000 runners/walkers on its 453-meter track (longest indoor track in the US!),  have more than 75 teams playing adult hockey, and offer 1,150 hours of public skating. At the same time, it reflects a legacy of Olympic medal-winning speedskaters. Of, the 86 Olympic medals won by US Speedskaters, 70 have been earned by athletes who have trained or competed at the Pettit Center.

The obsolete perception of a “financially-challenged” Pettit Center has been replaced by a solid, sustainable financial model that in 2017, the 25th (Silver) Anniversary year of the Center, has all excited at the opportunity to host the 2018 US Olympic Long Track Speedskating Trials in January 2018 and to bring esteem and international recognition to the Center and the City of Milwaukee.

None of this amazing improvement would have been possible without the 2007 restructuring. What is not quantifiable is the impact of having a vibrant Pettit Center that serves the well-being of so many in Milwaukee and beyond. Clearly, the Center reflects its guiding principle, “Gold Medal Excellence, Community Well-Being.”[41]

The Pettit is a landmark in the State of Wisconsin. A place that represents years of excellence as it relates to speed skating in the Olympic movement. The Pettit is a designated national training center for the Olympics, bears the name of one of the most philanthropic families in Wisconsin history, has hosted numerous skating competitions making Milwaukee, Wisconsin a destination place for speed skating, and has hosted some of the most iconic speedskaters in the world. The Pettit is a Wisconsin treasure and deserves all of Wisconsinites support.


[1] “Wisconsin’s Gold Mine” The Pettit National Ice Center, Wis. Historical Soc’y, (last visited Dec. 6, 2016).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Building Commissioner: Section 13.48 Request for Approval of the Sale of the Pettit National Ice Center – Agenda Item IX (Dec. 14, 2016),; Our Facility, Pettit Nat’l Ice Center, (last visited Dec. 6, 2016).

[11] Our Facility, supra note 10.

[12] Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, supra note 10, at 1; About Us, Pettit Nat’l Ice Center, (last visited Dec. 6, 2016).

[13] Get Directions, Pettit Nat’l Ice Center, (last visited Dec. 6, 2016).

[14] Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, supra note 10, at 1.

[15] The Pettit Center Team, Pettit Nat’l Ice Center, (last visited Dec. 6, 2016).

[16] Pettit National Ice Center, Best of Lake Geneva, (last visited Dec. 6, 2016); About Us, supra note 12.

[17] About Us, supra note 12.

[18] Pettit National Ice Center, supra note 16; About Us, supra note 12; Olympic Legacy at The Pettit Center, Pettit Nat’l Ice Center, (last visited Dec. 6, 2016).

[19] Our Facility, supra note 10.

[20] About Us, supra note 12; Speed Skating, Pettit Nat’l Ice Center, (last visited Dec. 6, 2016); Pettit National Ice Center, Wikipedia, (last visited Dec. 6, 2016).

[21] Olympic Legacy at The Pettit Center, supra note 18; Gary D’Amato, Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair Linked Forever in Olympic History, and As Friends, Mil. J. Sentinel (Jan. 29, 2014),; Pettit National Ice Center, supra note 20.

[22] Our Facility, supra note 10.

[23] Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, supra note 10, at 1.

[24] Id.

[25] Id. at 2.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Gary D’Amato, Pettit Center Changes Hands, Mil. J. Sentinel (Jan. 6, 2007),; State Building Commission Approves Pettit Ice Center Sale, Mil. Bus. J. (Aug. 9, 2006),; see generally Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, supra note 10.

[30] D’Amato, supra note 29; Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, supra note 10, at 2, 4.

[31] D’Amato, supra note 29; State Building Commission Approves Pettit Ice Center Sale, supra note 29; Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, supra note 10, at 4.

[32] State Building Commission Approves Pettit Ice Center Sale, supra note 29.

[33] Id.

[34] Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, supra note 10, at 3.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] D’Amato, supra note 29.


[41] Email from Randy Dean to Martin J. Greenberg (Nov. 30, 2016) (on-file with author).