Hall in Flames

Strife at swimming's prime shrine threatens to wash away a local icon

Nelson says he told Freas after the meeting that he could no longer support him. "I work for these people," he remembers saying, referring to the commissioners.

At that meeting was Ernest Burkeen, who was Fort Lauderdale's Parks and Recreation Director for three years until June, 2004. He chuckles when he recalls the scene. "I don't think Sam Freas was politically astute enough to take on the things he wanted to take place," says Burkeen, who is now Parks and Recreation Director in Miami. "You can't hit somebody upside the head with a two-by-four and not expect that they hit back. No matter how right you are, you cannot embarrass the politicians."

Then-city commissioner Tim Smith, who left the board in 2003, says he voted against the plan because it included too many beach condo units. "When the Hall of Fame wasn't picked, they were really offended," he says. "It was ugly. The whole damn thing was ugly."

Embattled Hall of Fame President Sam Freas
Colby Katz
Embattled Hall of Fame President Sam Freas
Fort Lauderdale's pools have hosted ten world records, the most recent by Michael Phelps in 2002.
Colby Katz
Fort Lauderdale's pools have hosted ten world records, the most recent by Michael Phelps in 2002.

Freas admits that he made mistakes in the aftermath of that failed bid. When it was publicized that he was considering moving the Hall of Fame, he says, probably 20 cities called, and when he entertained their offers, it just irked city officials further. "It wasn't fair for them," Freas says, referring to the commissioners. When the development issue resurfaced that August, the commission again rejected it.

Thus began the Hall of Fame's long journey to nowhere.

Freas accepted pitches from Pompano Beach, Sunny Isles, and Las Vegas. Then an advisory group to the Fort Lauderdale City Commission proposed spending $30.7 million to upgrade the aquatic complex and the Hall of Fame facilities.

The Hollywood deal, which would have put the pool smack in the middle of Broward's funkiest beach, was perhaps the most attractive of all the plans. In mid-2001, former Hollywood commissioner John Coleman introduced Freas to mega-developer Michael Swerdlow, who had built some of South Florida's most prized locations. But Swerdlow had also been politically radioactive since 1997, when Broward County purchased 291 acres near Port Everglades from him for at least twice its assessed value, then leased him 97 acres. The deal touched off a state attorney's investigation and sank three supportive commissioners.

"You gotta like him," Freas says of Swerdlow. "He can be charming, he can be rude, he can be super-intelligent. He knew that we wanted to renew ourselves. He talked to our board, and our board believed him. Did we know he was politically incorrect in Broward County? Hell, no."

The upshot was, in November 2001, Freas announced that the swim hall would move to Hollywood Beach. The proposed $30 million Hall of Fame facility would be financed by taxes from a $240 million project that included a trio of 20-story condo towers. Fort Lauderdale withdrew its proposed millions, the Hall of Fame's parking revenue, and a $405,000 grant of parks money for museum programs.

Swerdlow, Freas, and Hollywood mayor Mara Giulianti tried to move quickly on the proposed facility. Giulianti called for a vote on the measure November 14, 2001, just 12 days after the city's proposal was announced. Opponents balked. Citizens said the deal was being ramrodded. Freas ducked out the day before the measure came to a commission vote.

Pompano Beach was on deck. In late 2001, its city commissioners voted to allow negotiations with the Hall of Fame and Swerdlow. The ungrateful citizenry balked at possible 40-story beachside condos. Last year, after nearly 18 months of discussion -- and the toppling of mayor Bill Griffin, its prime supporter -- the Pompano plan perished.

All had not been lost with Fort Lauderdale. But while the prudent thing for the Hall of Fame to do might have been to tread lightly with the city, Hall of Fame associates were burning bridges.

Marvin and Freas recall a disastrous tête-à-tête in 2002 in which representatives from the city met with Freas and Swerdlow. "The worst meeting I've ever been in," Freas says. "Michael Swerdlow is a genius. Would I like to hang out with him? No. Is he hard? Oh, man. And he talked down to those guys. I felt very bad. There he said, 'I'm going to endow the pool and I want him' -- pointing at me -- 'to run it.' I would never say that. It's not fair. I'm sure Stu thought for sure that I was behind him saying that." Marvin just remembers Swerdlow pounding the table and demanding the city finance the Hall of Fame.

Then late last year, John Fletemeyer, vice chairman of the Hall of Fame's board, filed public information requests, asking among other things what Fort Lauderdale was spending on Jack Nelson and the O'Briens. He suggested a firm called Ellis and Associates might help trim costs.

The coaching legends who work at the pool fired back, decrying privatization, "personal attacks," and the state of the museum exhibits. A former Hall of Fame treasurer wrote that the operation had lost nearly $800,000 in 13 years of management by Freas, whom the treasurer calls "Captain Chaos." On May 21 this year, Nelson resigned from the Hall of Fame in a letter that ripped Freas' and Fletemeyer's "selfish agendas" and "questions about how much money I make."

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