Panthers come knocking for more public money

Hockey team makes power play for $5 million a year from Broward hotel taxes

Here we go again. The Florida Panthers are at our doorstep, helmets in hand, asking for another handout.

The hockey team's ownership keeps changing, but the song remains the same from Broward's lone professional sports franchise: We need more.

Every few years, it's something else. A fancy new scoreboard. A loan. Help with soaring property insurance costs.

And now, with new owner Vincent Viola in place, comes the biggest request since the county built the Sunrise arena for team founder H. Wayne Huizenga in the late 1990s: another $5 million a year, give or take. For 14 years. That would be $70 million in public funds redirected into the pockets of wealthy sports owners and athletes.


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I say it's the most perverse form of welfare imaginable, and just because it happens in almost every city with every sports team — including the pathetic Marlins and glamorous Heat in Miami — doesn't make it right. And just because the money comes from tourist-driven hotel taxes doesn't make it justifiable.

"We have one of the worst leases in the league," Panthers CEO Michael Yormark told me Friday. "Before we open the door, this building costs us $9 [million] to $10 million a year. We need some help."

So the struggling Panthers are making a play at a money pile that's been bigger than anticipated. In 1996, the County Commission approved a 2-percent surtax on hotel rooms to build the arena. The bed tax was supposed to generate $8 million a year to cover the county's portion of arena bond repayments. But as more hotels have been built and room rates have gone up, the surtax now generates over $16 million a year.

The way Yormark sees it, the Panthers deserve a big chunk of that money. The team wants to siphon more from the surtax to cover its share of annual arena debt repayment ($4.5 million) and building maintenance ($500,000). In return, the team would repay a $10 million loan early and cut the county in on a potentially lucrative hotel/casino development deal.

I asked Yormark if he'd be willing to put this proposal to a voter referendum. All it needs is majority approval of the nine-member county commission.

"There's no need for a public vote," Yormark said. "The issue is very straightforward. The intent of the 2-cent bed tax was to pay off the debt on the building and that's what this would do."

Commissioners have acted more like enablers than good public stewards when it comes to the team, always saying yes. They're spooked by the prospect of an arena without a main tenant.

Yormark said the team's current financial path is "unsustainable," with losses of $20 million a year. Considering the team has reaped 99.7 percent of the arena's profits in its original lopsided deal with the county, I'd say that's a pretty stunning indictment of hockey's economics and this team's management.

Unlike the Heat, the Panthers haven't exactly lit up this town with success or excitement. They're kidding themselves if they think people will readily go for this. Reaction among Sun Sentinel message board commenters and those who wrote to my colleague Brittany Wallman has been mostly negative.

Hollywood Mayor Peter Bober also has concerns, noting his city's hotels produce lots of bed tax and don't receive much in return. This money could be going toward beach renourishment or other tourism priorities.

Yormark said the team drives tourism, too, with the NHL Draft set to return to the arena in June 2015. "We are a marketing tool for this region," Yormark said.

One that keeps getting more expensive.

mmayo@tribune.com; 954-356-4508

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