The Florida Panthers professional hockey team says it's losing more than $20 million a year and needs more public funds to survive.
The struggling team is asking for a rewrite of its contract with Broward County. Under the team's proposal, the county would use additional tourism taxes to pick up $70 million in BB&T Center costs currently being paid by the Panthers. The team also hopes to develop 22 acres north of the BB&T arena in Sunrise into a casino-hotel, if the state Legislature enacts laws that allow it this spring.
Panthers President Michael Yormark said the deal that birthed the arena in the late 1990s has proven unsustainable.
"I think the community wants a healthy arena,'' Yormark said. "They want a healthy sports team. They want the benefit that a professional sports team and world-class entertainment brings to their community.''
Yormark said he's seeking the changes immediately, hoping to better compete as an entertainment venue with the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and American Airlines Arena.
The Panthers organization runs Broward's arena in Sunrise, bringing in more money from concerts and other events than from its hockey games, county records show. Financial records show the Panthers make a profit from arena operations. It's the Panthers team that's losing money, Yormark said.
"This organization has lost between $20 [million] and $30 million on an annual basis,'' Yormark said, "and those dollars have been funded by our owners.''
The deal hinges on the approval of the nine-member Broward County Commission. County officials said they didn't want to rush to a vote. They'll vet the proposal at a workshop in the near future.
The changes have "very significant implications,'' County Administrator Bertha Henry said, and would require a rewrite of the existing contract.
County Auditor Evan Lukic said he has just begun reviewing the proposal, but warned that his initial analysis left him wondering if the county would benefit.
Yormark said the 2 percent tourism bed tax created to cover the county's costs for the arena has generated millions more than expected, and it's that pot of money he's eyeing. The tax is levied on overnight visitors staying in Broward hotels.
The $185 million arena, which opened in 1998, was built with public financing for then-Panthers owner H. Wayne Huizenga. Broward leaders were sold on the controversial arena deal with promises that profits would return to the taxpayers. That has so far happened only once.
The current arrangement has the county paying $8 million a year toward the debt for arena construction. Another $2 million comes from state funds, and the Panthers pay $4.5 million. The Panthers organization also pays for maintaining and insuring the facility.
Under the proposed change, for the 14-year balance of the current contract:
•The Panthers would shed the $4.5 million annual payment; it would be picked up by the county.
•The county would contribute $500,000 a year toward maintenance, and would pay any of the property insurance tab that exceeds $1 million.
•The Panthers would swap the land it has rights to build on, 12 acres south of the arena, in favor of 22 acres on the arena's north side, where the Panthers hope a casino-hotel or some other development could be built and brought onto the tax rolls.
•The Panthers would immediately repay $10.6 million in loans the county granted them in recent years.
•The Panthers would continue contributing $500,000 a year to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.