By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.