Not far from the hustle of downtown Fort Lauderdale sits Holiday Park. There are basketball and tennis courts, open play areas, walking trails, playgrounds, and multiple sports fields.
The 93-acre refuge, just south of Sunrise Boulevard and east of Federal Highway, is one of the last few spaces of greenery that has not fallen victim to the city's rapid development. But, according to at least one critic, the city is about to throw that away.
A 50-year lease agreement between Fort Lauderdale and the Florida Panthers that takes effect today could allow two indoor ice rinks, a Panthers practice facility, a 3,000 person capacity music venue, and indoor facilities for youth sports. The development will revamp the 70-year-old War Memorial Auditorium and may come at the expense of a walking trail and greenery inside Holiday Park. The city approved the deal, which raises only $1 per year and includes an $800,000 public grant, in April.
But Gary Olsen, a Fort Lauderdale resident since 2002, sued the city June 21, claiming it "unlawfully proceeded with the lease."
"I was in disbelief when I found out the city was giving the green light to the out-of-town Panthers to develop away Holiday Park... it was a real gut-punch," Olsen tells New Times. "What bothers me most is that the city is blatantly ignoring its own charter in order to keep the public from having any input or even knowledge of the lease. The lease is not for the public good. It is for the Panthers' good. Our city officials are not being public servants; they're being Panthers' servants and our sacred beautiful outdoor would be lost for good because of it."
When reached for comment last week, a Panthers spokesman said, “The Florida Panthers are excited about the war memorial benefit corporation partnership with the city of Fort Lauderdale on a world-class community-focused sports and recreation facility. We will refrain from commenting on the action filed today, as this is a pending legal matter, but we are confident that this partnership will prevail.”
The deal, which will likely require further commission votes, took shape in the aftermath of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, when the city commission voted to end Florida Gun Shows Inc.'s decades-long run at the War Memorial Auditorium in Holiday Park.
The city claimed the Panthers deal will create a more family-friendly atmosphere. “It’s going to be quite, quite spectacular if it all comes to fruition,” city commissioner Steven Glassman told the Sun Sentinel back in February.
"It's a shame. Holiday Park used to be untouchable." Olsen says. "The ironic part is that the new commissioners and mayor Trantalis won and came in under the anti-development platform and not only are they developing around Holiday Park, but also within the park itself."
When Olsen first heard the city intended to sign the lease with the Panthers, he offered to walk through the park with Glassman, who represents the district where the park is located, to show him how the development could impact the walking trail in the park. The response was an offer to meet with an assistant after the lease agreement was approved.
"I tried to get Commissioner Glassman out [to the park] for about two weeks from the last week of March until the week of April 10. I then reached out to his assistant and then got an email that she would be willing to walk around the trail on April 18 but I knew the vote was April 16," Olsen says. "The commissioner then agreed to meet with me at City Hall in his office on the 15th, but we didn't go to the park. The city is just doing whatever the Panthers want to do."
Commissioner Glassman did not return New Times' call about this matter.
Olsen says he wanted to protect the walking trail that he has used and loved for so many years. "The trail is my main place to go... to soothe the mind," Olsen tells New Times. "I never bring music or my phone with me. I just like to take everything in, and they are trying to take that away."
Olsen says he finally saw specifics of the lease agreement and a sketch of the land on April 11 and he was shocked by the listed activities that are allowed to be offered with these new renovations.
"The lease came out on the evening of April 11, the first time we saw anything of this stuff," Olsen says. "It was all supposed to be for public purposes and community stuff, but the lease comes out and shows they are running a big business, including liquor, beer, and wine, making it be a non-profit. Then I saw the lease parcel and I knew it would cut my jogging trail and the pine wooded area."
At the public hearing before the vote on April 16, Olsen voiced his concerns and wishes to protect "one of the nicest settings" within the park to the commission. "I was the only one who objected at the hearing based on the basis of the public not knowing about this and this will destroy the jogging trail and the greenery around it," Olsen says. "The city commissioners rejected all of that. At the hearing afterward, the president and owner of the Panthers were there — [It was] a great, big press conference about this going through."
The Panthers are doing the deal as part of the "War Memorial Benefit Corporation," a so-called social purpose corporation, which is a hybrid of for-profit and non-profit organization. Olsen claims calling the Panthers a social purpose organization is a way to get the deal easily approved. "I think they tried to jam this through," he says. "The city felt empowered. It continued with calling it a social purpose corporation since no one knows what that is — perceiving it as a not-for-profit corporation. It is for profit, they were using 'social purpose corporation' to sort of deceive the public."
The lawsuit alleges the statute the city is using to justify leasing the land is improper because the lessee is a for-profit organization.
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Olsen says the city should instead be following the statute that provides the guidelines for leasing to a for-profit organization. "For nonprofit organizations, you are allowed to get the lease first before giving the plans, but for for-profit organizations, the plans need to come first and the public gives input if they have any problems Olsen tells New Times.
This past March, the city approved a $200 million bond for park projects. Leading up to the citizen vote on the bond, Olsen says he saw green signs around Fort Lauderdale sponsored by the "Friends for a Safer Green Fort Lauderdale" advocating for residents to vote yes on the parks bond. Olsen figured it was a group that is dedicated to protecting the parks in Fort Lauderdale, but he was surprised to learn it is led by a developer.
"It's maybe [green] in the sense of making money for all these people."
Also, Olsen writes in the lawsuit that "in conjunction with the $200 million parks bond," he saw a banner in front of the auditorium that listed park improvements including "walking/jogging/fitness trail renovations."
"I saw these big signs about the improvements they were going to make, but now I know ...the nice parts of the trail and the surrounding green space and trees — that's all going to be gone."