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Florida Panthers get $4.2 million grant for new scoreboard – after a scolding

Florida Panthers president Michael Yormark looked as if he had been called into the principal’s office for good portions of Tuesday’s meeting with the Broward County Commission.

Yormark’s mood changed once the scoldings ended.

After being dressed down and forced to apologize for the team’s incomplete financial records, Yormark walked out of the Broward Government Center with a $4.2 million grant for a new scoreboard at the county-owned BB&T Center.

The motion to give the Panthers the money from the Tourist Development Tax’s reserves passed by a 6-2 vote. Sue Gunzburger and Tim Ryan voted against and Stacy Ritter abstained as her husband Russ Klenet has lobbied for the team in Tallahassee.

“This was bigger than a scoreboard. It’s about tourism and economic development,” Yormark said outside the commission chambers. “It’s about creating more visibility for Broward County. We had a very strong case. We have developed a strong partnership with Broward County… I thought we were going to get a fair shot. And we did.”

The day wasn’t a lopsided victory for the Panthers, but it was close.

County auditor Evan Lukic spoke before the Panthers made their presentation for a new scoreboard and master control center to replace equipment the building opened with in 1998.

Lukic’s report spelled out a number of financial discrepancies between the three companies that comprise the Panthers organization – The Arena Operating Company, Sunrise Sports & Entertainment and the Florida Panthers hockey club.

Lukic contends the AOC overpaid the Panthers by $4.2 million on arena returns yet underfunded its reserve accounts.

One account that should have $2 million has a balance of just $163.81. Another account should have $3.3 million, but Lukic says the balance is $6,712.41.

Yormark promised the situation would be taken care of by Aug. 31, telling the board to “hold me accountable.”

“You’ve given us your word,” commissioner Lori Wexler said, “and we’ve heard that before.”

Yormark and the Panthers did not argue over Lukic’s finding but said it’s an “internal accounting issue” which doesn’t affect how the Panthers pay the county or does business. “We’ve been a wonderful partner with the county,” Yormark added.

But Lukic contends that the county doesn’t know how much money it should receive from the team, without proper documentation.

Gunzburger said the Panthers paid the county $26,000 last year – only the second time Broward County received anything from the team since the arena opened.

The Panthers and the county have a complex profit sharing agreement in which Broward basically gets 20 percent of every dollar over the first $12 million the team clears.

Ryan proposed lowering the threshold to $9 million, although that was voted down.

“We work extraordinarily hard to drive the maximum profitability out of that building,” Yormark said. “Our hope there is more distribution. Last year there was a small one. We’re going to continue to grow our revenue.”

Although Lukic spoke out against the county paying for the scoreboard – something he said the Panthers should pay for since the county would not benefit from the purchase – the commission did not agree.

“You can’t win them all,” Lukic said. “I don’t vote. I did my job today.”

The tide turned for the Panthers on Tuesday when Nicki Grossman, CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the commission a large Jehovah’s Witness international convention would not come to South Florida in 2014 without updated audio and video capabilities at the arena.

Grossman and the Panthers claim the convention will bring in $96 million in economic impact to the county, but Wexler and others scoffed at that. However, they did agree that the impact would be big enough to move forward with their support.

The convention is expected to be held over four weekends next summer and may possibly return in 2015 and ’16. The commission was told the event will bring 12,000 hotel nights to the county next June.

Also, the NHL would bring its draft weekend to Sunrise within the next three years, according to David Zimmerman, NHL’s general counsel. He promised South Florida was back in the rotation for future All-Star Weekends.

“This is the first time in which the status of their scoreboard crept into my vision,” Grossman said afterward. “If we could have fit the Jehovah’s Witness convention into the convention center, we wouldn’t be here. They needed the larger venue and needed the scoreboard for their communications with other conventions.”

Yormark said the scoreboard would be ordered immediately. The old one would be dismantled and hopefully donated to a local high school.

The new scoreboard would be in place by the Panthers’ first preseason game in mid-September, he said.

“When you look at what we’ve done to our building over the past decade, this is the final piece,” Yormark said. “To have this behind us, to open our 20th anniversary season with a new scoreboard is exciting. The experience is going to be enhanced.”