Broward judge won’t block Florida Panthers 50-year lease at Holiday Park

aerial view of war memorial auditorium
Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial Auditorium located in Holiday Park.

By Dan Christensen,

A Broward judge Tuesday dismissed a legal challenge that sought to block Fort Lauderdale’s controversial deal with the owners of the Florida Panthers, giving them control of a chunk of Holiday Park, including War Memorial Auditorium, for 50 years.

Circuit Judge William Haury did not examine the merits of the lawsuit filed last year against the city and the War Memorial Benefit Corporation (WMBC), which argued the city wrongly gave the company a special deal by treating it as if it were a nonprofit when it is in fact a for-profit entity.

Rather, the judge ruled in a hearing broadcast on Zoom that plaintiff Gary J. Olsen, a lawyer and city resident who regularly uses the park, did not have legal standing to sue. Olsen, he indicated, had failed to demonstrate he had suffered a “special injury” by the city’s action as required by a 103-year-old Florida Supreme Court ruling.

Judge William Haury at Tuesday’s Zoom hearing

Olsen did not claim to have suffered economic injury by the city’s action. Rather, he argued his special injury was because of the “recreational and aesthetic” losses he will sustain.

Haury dismissed the civil case “with prejudice,” meaning that Olsen cannot refile it. The judge had dismissed the case for the same reason but without prejudice in February, allowing Olsen to refile his case with additional arguments.

Olsen said he plans to appeal.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” he said. “I think I do have a good appeal. This is a very important issue. The U.S. Supreme Court has held: ‘Aesthetic and environmental well-being, like economic well-being, are important ingredients of the quality of life in our society, and the fact that particular environmental interests are shared by the many rather than the few does not make them less deserving of legal protection through the judicial process.’

“Holiday Park urgently needs our protection now before it is developed away for good by the Panthers. The Panthers have already taken control of 10.8 acres of our park and that’s just the beginning.  I would appreciate the support (of) anybody who loves Holiday Park,” Olsen said.

Panther plans

The Fort Lauderdale City Commission voted unanimously in April 2019 to approve the 50-year lease with WMBC giving control of 6.83 acres of Holiday Park, including the 20,000-square-foot auditorium for $1 a year. The city also agreed to give the company $800,000 in taxpayer money. In exchange, the Panthers promised to spend in excess of $20 million to refurbish the auditorium and make other improvements, including a pair of indoor ice rinks, a training facility for the Panthers hockey team and a new concert venue.

A rendering of the proposed makeover of War Memorial Auditorium.

In October, the city commission approved a site plan for the War Memorial Hockey Facility. The site area was then listed as plus or minus 10.8 acres.

Olsen sued one year ago to invalidate the lease, contending the city failed to comply with mandatory procedures in the City Charter about how it leases property by treating WMBC as a nonprofit.

Avoiding competitive bidding

The decision let the city avoid seeking competitive bids for the property, a requirement when for-profit companies want a lease, but not for leases with nonprofits.

In fact, WMBC is a “social purpose corporation,” a type of for-profit established by the Legislature in 2014. It has two directors: Florida Panthers President and CEO Matthew Caldwell and Chief Operating Officer Sean McCaffrey. They work for billionaire Vincent “Vinnie” Viola and multi-millionaire Douglas Cifu, who bought the Florida Panthers and related businesses in 2013.

Attorney/Plaintiff Gary J. Olsen at Tuesday’s hearing

The Panthers, a money-making enterprise that nevertheless has been heavily subsidized by Broward taxpayers, established WMBC in December 2018 to both make money and create these declared public benefits: a renovated War Memorial Auditorium, new facilities for public activities to include ice skating, hockey, indoor lacrosse, soccer and other sports and a resulting improvement in “human health and fitness.”

City leaders, including Mayor Dean Trantalis and Commissioner Ben Sorensen, conflated WMBC’s status to the public. Sorensen called the company a “nonprofit entity of the NHL’s Florida Panthers” in a December column for Go Riverwalk magazine.

Olsen has said the confusion was deliberate, to keep the public in the dark “about the true nature of the lease.”

“What they’re doing is privatizing the park,” Olsen told Florida Bulldog in an interview earlier this year. “The lease parcel can now be expanded again and again by agreement of our city manager and the Panthers. The public has been completely shut out from the process.”

Representing the city at Tuesday’s hearing was Ed Dion, a former Broward County Attorney and General Counsel to the Sheriff’s Office. WMBC’s lawyer was Jack Seiler, the city’s former pro-development mayor.

Olsen represented himself.

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Latest comments

  • If a tax paying citizen that utilizes the facility “did not have legal standing to sue” then who does? This judicial system bias towards businesses over the people that they represent shows just how off course this society has progressed.

  • I read the article and Peter Jehlen’s response. I think there are good points in both.

    What I do not see here is Ed Dion’s and the cities position fully explained.
    As a pure independent, it would be easier for me to make a better based opinion.

    On face value, it appears there could have been slyness going on by the city.

    But ultimately, our society gives our government authority to decide many issues without getting input from every Tom, Dick and Gary Olsen. We have decided that as a society we do not want everyone to be able to litigate every issue our cities decide. Or am I misunderstanding the role we give to our elected officials?

  • Do we ultimately want the eventual congestion that brickell has, in downtown ft lauderdale? It doesn’t take a city planner to see the wrong direction we’re heading in.

  • Can we safe trees by replanting them?
    It’s still not too late . Is there any plan we as community can put together to replant them?

  • they are starting to cut trees already. moving forward despite this being in appeal. the lease is not valid becuase the panthers are NOT a not for porffit group and the city knows this. they must start the process and include a vote or comments from residents.

  • Please post any updates. the construction has already expanded to eliminate the jogging trail, trees, etc. new renderings show the pickle ball courts being moved as well as the playground. they will also move the dog park to be next to the sand volleyball courts. am I the only one that sees a problem, and a trend, in all this? are we going to give up the whole park to this for proffit group who will then sell alcohol on public land, for proffit? oh and manage (make money from) the parking lot to boot..

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