Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Now, hold on a minute


OUR OPINION: Broward taxpayers must be held harmless in any negotiations with the Panthers

Here comes another professional sports team asking for more public money — $70 million more to be exact. This time it’s the Florida Panthers, who play in the BB&T Arena, built with public money in Sunrise. The $185-million arena opened in 1998, when H. Wayne Huizenga still owned the hockey team.

The agreement between the Panthers and Broward County promised that taxpayers would profit from the arena, which the Panthers organization manages. The contract has the county paying $8 million a year toward the arena construction debt, the state paying $2 million and the Panthers $4.5 million. The team also pays for maintaining and insuring the facility. But so far the arena hasn’t returned much profit to taxpayers. Only once to be exact.

Turns out the Panthers make more money from arena operations hosting concerts and other events than from the struggling hockey team’s proceeds. Panthers President Michael Yormark says the team is losing between $20 million and $30 million a year as a result. So he is proposing rejiggering the agreement with the county now, 14 years before the contract is up for renewal.

Mr. Yormark is asking Broward County commissioners for way more than they should give the team at this point. He wants the county to pick up an additional $70 million in arena costs now paid by the team, using the county’s 2-percent hotel bed tax proceeds, created to pay Broward’s share of arena construction debt.

Under the proposal, the Panthers would unload the $4.5-million annual payment, which the county would pay instead. And Mr. Yormark wants the county to put up $500,000 annually toward maintenance and pay any property-insurance costs that exceed $1 million, meaning the county would use its own funds to pay its own county property taxes. How strange is that idea?

The proposal also has the Panthers swapping land it has rights to build on — 12 acres south of the arena — for 22 acres north of the facility where the team management wants to build a casino-hotel or other development to compete with the Hard Rock casino in Hollywood and the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.

That’s if the Legislature approves the casino. This proposal alone should raise eyebrows, since further down I-95, Genting had to scale back its plans for a casino-resort complex on the former site of the Miami Herald after the Legislature balked at approving more casinos anywhere.

In exchange, the Panthers would repay — now — the entire $10.6 million in loans the team has received over the past few years and would continue contributing $500,000 a year to the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

If the agreement is revised, the team management would also commit to investing in a team payroll “at a level with the rest of the National Hockey League.”

Otherwise, what? you might ask — and correctly so. Well, there’s no talk of the Panthers looking for another home in some other city or state, at least. The team just understandably wants to stanch its hemorrhaging bottom line.

But this proposal looks more like an opening salvo in anticipated negotiations than a firm list of demands, and so it should be. It’s in Broward’s interest to keep the hockey team here and encourage its profitability — but only if taxpayers are held harmless in any revised agreement. And it’s with these two goals in mind that the Broward County Commission should begin negotiating a revised contract with the Panthers.

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