The Florida Panthers are asking for too much, county officials say in a 125-page analysis — but it's in the county's best interests to give the Panthers something, the report concludes.
County commissioners will begin the debate Tuesday on whether to grant the struggling team millions of dollars more in Broward tourism taxes.
The Panthers National Hockey League team is losing millions of dollars and asking for help from Broward County. The team's request amounts to an estimated $5.6 million a year over 14 years, for a total $78.4 million in tourist taxes, the county says. The team also wants the right to develop 22 acres of county land on the north side of the arena as a casino-resort.
County Administrator Bertha Henry's exhaustive report to commissioners advises them that "we do not advocate consideration for [the Panthers'] request in its totality,'' but she warns of the possible downside of an arena without the Panthers.
The county-owned BB&T Center in Sunrise, where the Panthers play, is also a venue for concerts. The team's sister company runs the arena.
The team's request for more public funds — hotel bed taxes, specifically — pits vocal hotel and tourism interests against the county's only major league sports team. Hoteliers want bed taxes to pay for beach renourishment and tourism marketing.
The Panthers will make their case to Broward commissioners at a public workshop Tuesday. The team first faces what could be a more difficult audience: the county's Tourism Development Council, heavy with beach and hotel interests, which plans to hold a special meeting on the matter Friday.
The team says it's losing $20 million to $30 million a year.
Broward Mayor Barbara Sharief said she doesn't think the team has the votes on the County Commission to grant its entire request, and the sheer size of it has her wondering whether it should be put to the voters.
"I think it's sizeable. I do think it's sizeable,'' Sharief said. "That's why we're all having problems with it.''
But the county's report suggests it's too late to debate whether the public should support a sports franchise. That debate was had in the 1990s.
County staff said it's imperative that something be done to turn around an underperforming asset.
Rising in solitude over a sea of parking spaces, the arena isn't living up to expectations, the county says.
"In its present form it is slowly becoming economically obsolete as a sports and entertainment venue unless additional development is introduced,'' county officials advise commissioners in the just-released report.
Michael Yormark, Panthers CEO, said he was grateful the county took his request seriously. He frowned on the notion of a public vote.
"At the end of the day this is a decision the board needs to make,'' he said. "I've made this very clear. Residents in Broward County are not paying the freight to this facility.''
The $212 million cost of constructing the arena is being paid largely with taxes paid by hotel customers. Each year, the county contributes $8 million in hotel taxes, the state contributes $2 million in a sales tax rebate, and the Panthers give $4.6 million in revenues from running the arena towards the construction debt.
New owner Vinnie Viola, who paid $250 million last year to become the team's fifth owner, has not threatened to move the team. The Panthers are contractually obligated to play here until 2028.
"Now, that being said,'' Yormark added, "it also can't be expected that Mr. Viola is gong to sustain $30 million losses indefinitely. If for whatever reason the county decides they don't want to assist us, Mr. Viola is going to have to look at the economics and exposure, as any business person would.''
The county's fear of being left with an empty arena is evident throughout its report. Without a professional sports team as the anchor, allowing for cross-promotion of events, the arena would probably fail in this competitive market, the report says.