By Drew Olson Special to Published Jun 20, 2006 at 5:31 AM

When the Green Bay Packers were competing in the Super Bowl in 1996 and 1997, Oconomowoc native Craig Stoehr was watching the games in Europe, where he was working as a sports promoter.

A decade later, Stoehr (pronounced: stair), a former Wall St. corporate lawyer who has lived and worked in cities like New York, London, Paris, Milan and Istanbul, is the chairman of the Milwaukee Mile Holdings LLC, which he operates with assistance from Andrew Randall, the former president of U.S. Bank Wisconsin.

Stoehr’s group, which promotes races and will develop land around the storied one-mile oval track on the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds, includes about 30 investors – including the man who played nose tackle for those memorable Packers teams, Gilbert Brown.

With two major events slated to take place this weekend at the Mile -- the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race Friday night and the NASCAR Busch Series race the following evening, Stoehr – who now lives in downtown Milwaukee -- sat down in a conference room at Milwaukee Mile headquarters in West Allis and talked about his past experiences and his current job in an exclusive Milwaukee Talks interview: Let’s start with an unusual but important question: Can you tell me where can you get a strong martini in Milan? And, where I can find the best chicken wing special in Dubai?
Craig Stoehr: Chicken wings in Dubai? Well, the thing about Dubai, I find the food to be very Americanized. You can only have a liquor license if you’re a hotel, so all the restaurants are located in resorts and hotels. It’s kind of like Las Vegas or Phoenix, with a lot of chain-style restaurants. It’s not great for food.
How about this – Istanbul is my favorite place. Go have dinner at Reina. It’s right on the Bosphorus (Istanbul Strait), right between Asia and Europe. It’s open air. It’s like an amphitheatre-style place. It’s huge. It’s got 10 different restaurants. You’ve got Turkish food, Italian food, a sushi restaurant. It’s all different. Then there is a huge bar in the middle and a huge outdoor dance floor with great music and you’re right on the water. It’s awesome.
OMC: As a citizen of the world, what drew you back to Milwaukee? Better yet -- how does a guy go from Wisconsin to Istanbul in the first place?
Stoehr: I was born here in West Allis, because my parents had been living here and moved to Oconomowoc when my mom was pregnant. I grew up in Oconomowoc, went to Oconomowoc Senior High School. I went to the University of Minnesota after that. I spent a year between undergrad and law school working as a traveling consultant for my national fraternity. You go fly around the country and ...
OMC: And party like crazy?

Stoehr: There was more to it than that. You advise the chapters on leadership and scholarship programs. You meet with the vice president of student affairs who is in charge of the Greek system, alumni advisory board and this kind of stuff. There was actually some worthwhile stuff, but there also was a lot of partying. But, it was a good thing to take a year off. I got to travel the South, which was my region. I got to go to schools in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and all these places where I probably wouldn’t have spent any time. It was interesting. I got to spend six weeks at UCLA, starting a new chapter. It was a good experience.

OMC: What came next?

Stoehr: I did my first year of law school at Marquette and lived at home while I did that. Then, I transferred my second year at Northwestern and graduated from there. I went to New York and worked for a law firm and while I was there I got to work on World Cup ’94 and some Major League Soccer stuff, which led me to go to Paris before the 1998 World Cup. I stayed there for 18 months working on a project with Pele, Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio and a bunch of big soccer stars.

From there, I came back to New York for a bit, then to London. This was all working in sports marketing and media related companies. Then, I went to Istanbul and I ran something called the Class 1 World Powerboat Championship, which is like Formula One or NASCAR, except in the water and in Europe and East Asia.
We had some very good attendances. We would get anywhere from 150,000 to 1 million per race on these harbors. It was pretty exciting, but trying to build the brand globally was a bit of a challenge.
Through that, I made some contacts in Formula One and spent some time with a marketing agency in Dubai. Then, I came here.
OMC: What drew you back to Wisconsin?

Stoehr: My brother is here. He’s married. He’s got a couple of little kids, my nephews. My parents are here. I hadn’t spent a lot of time with them while I was gone, maybe one week a year. You start to miss your folks. My father had a few problems with the heart and was in the hospital a couple times. You start thinking, “Well, I could stay over here in Dubai or move back to somewhere else I really love, like New York or London, or, I could go back and see what’s going on in Wisconsin.”

OMC: Didn’t you first look into being involved with a possible MLS soccer team in Milwaukee? How did this racing opportunity arise? Stoehr: (Soccer) is actually how this conversation got started. Marty Greenberg (chairman of the State Fair Park Board) had talked to me about getting involved with the soccer project and we were kind of kicking stuff around and I said, “Hey, are you ever going to get a Cup race at the Mile?” He said, “Funny you should ask about the Mile. We’re looking for a new promoter.”

Whoever introduced us knew that I had a background in sports marketing and was now running an investment fund. He kind of said, “Maybe you’d like to get involved and be the promoter.” At first I said, “It’s not really real estate. I don’t think we’d be real interested. You guys are losing a lot of money over there.” I came out and took a look at it and I saw that there was a lot of undeveloped land here that could be put to higher use. If we can do a deal for the land, maybe it will make sense to take on the track if we can control the whole thing. We did all the due diligence and saw that there was a lot of opportunity just on the operational side to run it profitably with the right management team and the right approach. I think we’ve started that.
OMC: Were you a racing fan as a kid?

Stoehr: I was. I remember coming here to State Fair a couple times when I was little. I remember in the papers how the guys used to come here and race before the Indy 500 and come up during the testing phase and there seemed to be a real buzz about it. NASCAR wasn’t as big as it is now, when I was a kid. Those guys are super marketers and they’ve got a fantastic product.

Speed is fun. I like being around the racing side of things. When I was doing some Formula One stuff, I got a chance to go out in those two-seaters, where you sit right behind the driver. Being able to get in some of the boats which go up to 170 mph on water, which is always unstable. That part is fun. I like it, but I’m not enough of a junkie to want to do it myself.
OMC: So, you’re not out on the track turning laps after work.

Stoehr: Exactly. I don’t have the car for it. Maybe if I had the car for it, I’d do it. I’ve got a Toyota Land Cruiser, which is a great car but I don’t see spinning around the oval in that thing.

OMC: Let’s talk about the track for a second: How can you generate new racing fans and increase revenue in a competitive market with a limited window of good weather?
Stoehr: We have over 100 days of use, which includes the races, the testing, a lot of sports car clubs come in and race on weekends. It includes things like Western Days, where they had fireworks and the Fourth of July. What we need to do is increase the number of days and the quality of events we do. The smaller events, like auto shows and a used car kind of swap meet, other things that can generate some more income for us and aren’t really labor intensive and cost intensive.
OMC: What about a racing school? Are motorcycles in your future?

Stoehr: We’ve got Richard Petty here this weekend. If you’ve ever done a ride-along at 150 mph or taken a racing course, it’s pretty interesting. Maybe we’ll get to a point where we have a permanent race school here. Some tracks have a permanent Richard Petty or Skip Barber facility, which would be interesting.

Motorcycles are difficult because of the configuration of the track. We could put motorcycles on the infield road course, but the problem is that part of that course is also on an oval. Going 200 mph and hitting into a pretty heavy-duty wall with no protection like you have in a car, makes things a little different. When you watch motorcycle races on TV, Superbikes, that kind of stuff, they’re on a road course in a big field with grass off the track and hay bales and things like that.
We’re looking into that. We’re looking into monster truck events, extreme sports events. It doesn’t have to be motor sports. It could be bicycle racing. It could be running. We’re looking at a facility that is 60 or 70 acres in size, it seats 40,000 people with a big infield, what are some things we can do in the summertime and in the winter time. They used to have snowmobile races here. We’re taking a look at that for next year. Does it make sense? Could we do snowmobile races? Could we do a winter carnival? We’re going to take a hard look at things we can do to interest people.
OMC: How big is the fan base for racing here?

Stoehr: There is a big fan base here. There are a lot of people who used to come as kids or adults and a little of the luster wore off. They didn’t come for a few years, or maybe they came and didn’t have a great experience. What we’re trying to do is get those people out to the track again and say “OK, we’ve got a new promoter going. Let’s check it out.” If we can get them out once and they have an enjoyable time, we can get them back. We also look at the casual fan who may not be a real passionate racing fan, but they like sports and they like going out to things like Summerfest and the Brewers and they may not like music or baseball, but they like to be out with their friends.

OMC: This definitely is an event-driven town. If there is a buzz about something, people will go. 

Stoehr: Right. People like to do stuff here. What we’re trying to do is create buzz. We’ve got a lot of interactive things happening. We’ve got the Mobile Mile exhibit, where people can view some history about the Mile and change a tire and play a PlayStation game that has the Mile on it. There are a lot of fun things going on. We just have to tell people about them and get them excited about them.

OMC: You’ve said that the ability to develop the land adjacent to the track was critical in your decision to get involved. How do you see using that 9 ½ acres?

Stoehr: We see a limited-service hotel. It really has nothing to do with the track in terms of why we think the hotel is a good investment here. It’s because the expo center is in use 200 days a year and all the other activity. It’s not like we have a 40,000 percent event all the time. You’d get some rooms when people come in for testing, but I think West Allis as a community -- with the businesses coming in -- it’s a great location. You’re halfway between downtown and Brookfield and Mayfair. Since January, I’ve seen how convenient it is in terms of location, particularly with all the construction that is going on downtown.

OMC: What is the timetable for the hotel / development?

Stoehr: We just interviewed three architectural firms that included each local group was teamed with a national group with a lot of sports and entertainment experience. We’ll probably make a decision Monday and create a proposed site plan and development plan so we can go to the City of West Allis and say, “Here is what we are thinking. Does that work? How does that impact the traffic patterns?” Once we get to a point where we have exactly what we want, then we’ll actually exercise the option (to purchase the land) and put the shovels in the ground.

OMC: What else will you envision for the site?

Stoehr: Definitely some retail. We’ve been talking with some different restaurants, including Quaker Steak and Lube, which is a perfect fit for a motor sports theme. We’ve talked about other retail. It won’t necessarily be heavily themed, but we want to incorporate the development with the track. We want the kind of businesses that are partners with the track or automotive related. We’re looking at a Wisconsin Racing Museum, that’s one of the things we’re exploring. We’d like to do something unique, not just another mixed-use development. We want it to have some novelty and be something people will seek out.

OMC: Milwaukee is often described as an ultraconservative market and one that can be tough on businesses. As someone who has worked in other places around the world and returned, are you finding that to be true? Stoehr: I certainly don’t think it’s a tax-friendly environment. My family has a business (Oconomowoc Manufacturing Corp.) here. I don’t know if you were looking at places to establish business, I don’t know that you would select Wisconsin. The tax base is high. The property taxes are high. At the same time, the cost of living is lower than places like Chicago. Do you have to deal with traffic and other issues that you would in a place like Chicago? No. But, I think there are some things they could be doing to lure businesses here.

OMC: What specific things have you learned about this market, starting with the business community?

Stoehr: In the year that I’ve been back here, I’ve made more business contacts and more friends -- really good people -- than in any of the other places that I’ve been. I’ve always had friends and good business colleagues, but maybe it was a little bit easier here because I’ve got my brother here and people know my parents. It’s a little easier to cast your net a little wider.

OMC: It’s definitely a small town. Is that an advantage of a disadvantage?

Stoehr: I would say that is a pro and a con. It’s good, because you can get to meet a lot of people quickly and get to know who people are and make good business contacts and meet people you like to socialize with. But, it is bad because everybody does know everybody’s business.

OMC: What have you learned about the consumers in this market?

Stoehr: I didn’t really notice it when I was here before, because I was younger, but there is a big driver here -- with everybody we’re doing business with and we’re doing our media campaign about -- you find that everything is very price-sensitive. 

OMC: Cheeseheads do tend to be cheapskates.

Stoehr: People in Milwaukee have money, but they’re really into value. They don’t spend lavishly. That’s something that I’ve learned. I will say this, though: Milwaukee has become much more cosmopolitan since I was here for law school in 1990.

I think the bars, the restaurants, the art museum, the Calatrava and the cultural activity seem to be more in step. You don’t see a big difference speaking to someone from Chicago or New York. We don’t’ have as many things as they do because they are bigger cities. But, I think if you go to Milwaukee Street and you see Carnevor and Cubanitas and Kenadee’s, there is a lot of activity there and the design is a little more forward and upscale. I love sushi and I go to Sake Tumi all the time. All those places seem to be doing well. If somebody does something a little bit different, it seems like people will embrace it. You just maybe need more people out there at the front of the pack willing to take a chance or a risk.

OMC: You’ve taken a risk by getting involved in the track. In some ways, your situation at the racetrack is similar to what Mark Attanasio experienced with the Brewers. He came in and saw the whole valley adjacent to his ballpark and the potential it had for development. He also retained some local ownership, which was pivotal in getting your deal done. When you were talking to investors about this project, what was the sales pitch? Were you selling the idea of racing or selling yourself?
Stoehr: We spent seven months negotiating and doing due diligence. If we didn’t think we could make money here, we wouldn’t have done it. For us, the real estate is kind of the icing on the cake. For sure, we can make money on the track itself, but we can also make money on the real estate. It makes financial sense for us. We’re in it for the long-term.

I would say the biggest sales point, besides the fact that the deal made sense, was Andy. He knew everybody involved. He went to some of the key people like (philanthropist) Chris Abele and Dan Bader (of the Helen Bader Foundation) and some of our earliest investors. They saw that it made sense and they liked the people involved.

Then, you start talking about adding people like Gilbert Brown and Ulice Payne and Fred Stratton. We’ve got a really nice cross-section of the community. We have business people, philanthropists, people who have been involved with sports and people who haven’t been involved with sports.

It has been a great experience. For my real estate company, it was a way of investing in Wisconsin. It put us on the map and gave us a profile. It’s already been good in terms of leading to some business.
OMC: What has it been like working with Gilbert?

Stoehr: Gilbert has been great. He’s a super guy, and he came to us. When he heard about the Mile going to a local investor group, he approached us. He’s been great. He loves racing. He loves being around. He loves people. He’s bright. He’s witty. You can see why he’s so popular. Not only was he a great ballplayer, but he’s got a certain charisma about him that people flock to.

OMC: How was your first event?

Stoehr: Overall, we were very pleased. If you look at attendance, I’d say we were triple where we were last year. Last year, I think we had about 6,000 or 7,000. This time, I think we had about 20,000 people there. Everything ran very smoothly. The Champ Car folks were very pleased with the operations and the increased turnout. Granted, I did hear a few people who were disappointed about the race ending. I understand that. Fans have a right to have certain expectations. It certainly will be something we address with champ car next season. Fans can count on that. For the most part, everything was positive. We got lucky with the weather and hopefully, we’ll get lucky again this weekend.

Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.