40 Years Later
by Tom Gullen, Superintendent of Facilities
I do not know all the history of the Winnetka Ice Arena but I have learned much of it. Over the years I’ve gotten to know many of those that were instrumental in making the Ice Arena a reality, most notably Hugh Brower and Chuck Lauer. I work out with Chuck every morning at 6:00am and he often tells me “you’re late!” ….age has not slowed him.
Several years back according to Chuck, Walt McNerney, “the man who got the rink built” passed away. His daughter was cleaning out her father’s home and came upon the perfectly organized files of the history of the Winnetka Ice Arena and wanted me to have them. Most of the early history comes from those files.
In 1966 the Winnetka Park District proposed an outdoor, artificial ice arena that would cost $425,000. A referendum on the issuance of bonds to construct the facility failed by a vote of 1,100 to 700.
In 1969 the Winnetka Skating Association continued the efforts to bring an ice facility to Winnetka. They found that 76% of residents had a favorable opinion towards the construction of an indoor, artificial ice arena. They also commissioned consultants and lobbied the Park Board to issue $500,000 in revenue bonds to construct the Ice Arena. After construction another $100,000 was issued to complete the project bringing the total cost to $600,000. The Ice Arena opened it’s doors in 1972.
While the early years were successful program wide, they were not successful financially, primarily due to the first “energy crisis” in 1974 that drove utility prices significantly higher. The solution to generating more revenue was to stay open in the summer months. The Ice Arena did not have the needed infrastructure and this created problems with the ice surface. Unfortunately, very little money was set aside to re-pay the bonds that would become due in 1988 and 1991.
When I started in the early 1980’s Winnetka was an older community; Skokie School was closed as a school and New Trier West closed its doors. The talk in the community was to make the Ice Arena into a Dominick’s Grocery store. Things were not good and the conditions started to deteriorate.
Slowly things improved. In 1983 there was a skate-a-thon held that raised $30,000 to purchase a new Zamboni. A citizen’s group solicited bond holders to donate their bonds back to the Park District. The Ice Arena became profitable. In 1988 the major issuance and the bonds were paid off and in 1991 the balance was paid off. The Ice Arena has remained profitable since the early 80’s, consistently operating at a surplus. Along the way, two major facility improvements occurred: a 1996 addition that constructed five locker rooms to the south of the Ice Arena and renovated the existing lobby spaces, and in 2001 the ice arena floor, HVAC, refrigeration system, and hockey boards were replaced.
The lasting memory to me is not the building or the financial picture of the Ice Arena. It is what this facility has brought to the community. Ice skating and hockey are a way of life. I see people who move into Winnetka from all over the country because of the Ice Arena. I see families that grew up here in Winnetka move back so their children can enjoy what they did as a child. It allows kids as young as three the opportunity to learn an activity they can continue to do the majority of their life. Every year hundreds perform in our annual Ice Show. It has brought a High School Hockey dynasty to New Trier High School. It has created one of the largest youth hockey programs in the United States.
This all happened because a group of people some 45 years ago had a dream that they made their mission. I think how lucky we are to have had those people before us.