Note: An earlier version of this story attributed some quotes to Melania Knauss-Trump, Donald Trumps wife, at an April 14 marketing event for Trump International Hotel & Tower. This woman was actually Senada Adzem, vice president of marketing for Bayrock Group, the developer building the hotel. Melania Knauss-Trump was not in attendance.
The man who runs BankAtlantic Center recently made a remarkable announcement about how a few pampered millionaires will soon get special access including their own separate entrance to the publicly financed arena that houses the Florida Panthers. But when New Times informed Michael Yormark that a reporter had attended the swank party where he unveiled the plan and had questions about it, the businessman sounded offended.
"That was a private party," he said.
Well, not really. News media were invited to the April 14 fete and were required to wear identification. But maybe Yormark didn't notice the press amid the splendor. It was one fancy shindig. Even the bartender knew the event's display of wealth was awfully ostentatious for Fort Lauderdale.
"I've never seen this sandy tourist town so dressed up," he said, shaking his head and holding a bottle of Bacardi in his hand.
Around 8 o'clock that night, men in suits walked through the front entrance of the lavishly decorated Bonnet House, the historic plantation-style estate near Sunrise Boulevard and A1A. On the men's arms were women whose ornate, low-cut dresses could pay for a month's rent in Broward County.
They were at the invitation-only event to celebrate the unveiling of the Trump International Hotel & Tower under construction in Fort Lauderdale. Most were real estate agents and brokers who specialize in high-end condos, the same type of multimillion-dollar units that are available preconstruction at Trump International. Others were the hangers-on, the people with goods and services to sell to the wealthy.
A woman displayed diamonds from M. Zac & Co. in the courtyard.
A sales representative from Maybach USA showed off three luxury sedans in the parking lot. The sticker prices exceeded $300,000.
The point of the party was to get people excited about buying and selling some of the most expensive condos in South Florida. The guest of honor, Donald Trump, was on hand to stir up the buying fervor.
Trump stood on a stage near a small canal that leads to the Intracoastal Waterway. He was telling the partygoers about the benefits that owners at Fort Lauderdale's Trump International will enjoy.
Then Senada Adzem, vice president of marketing for the developer of the Trump Hotel, took the microphone. "We would like to announce a partnership with the BankAtlantic Center, which you may know," she said. "Michael Yormark is the chief operating officer, and he will say a few words about the perks that our buyers will have."
A trim man with slicked-back black hair and a black suit, Yormark rushed on stage.
"Good evening," he said. "My name is Michael Yormark. I'm the chief operating officer of the BankAtlantic Center. We're so proud to be here this evening. We have a very, very, very unique relationship with Trump Fort Lauderdale. It revolves around access and VIP treatment. Those people who have purchased units and will be purchasing the remaining units will have special opportunities with our facility.
"When our biggest artists and performers come into our building, they'll be getting the best seats in the house," Yormark continued. "When they come to our building, they'll pick up those tickets in a VIP area. If they want to meet the artist, they'll be able to meet the artist. If they want to meet our Florida Panthers hockey players, they'll be able to meet our Florida Panthers hockey players.
"And most importantly, they'll be receiving gold keys to our building. They'll be treated like the owners of our facility. So we're very, very excited about this relationship, and again, those people who have purchased units should be very, very excited. And congratulations. Thank you."
Left out of the exciting announcement, however, was any mention of the ordinary taxpayers who had built the stadium, originally called the Broward County Civic Arena, with $212 million of public money raised through a 2 percent increase in the tourism bed tax.
The BankAtlantic Center is a public facility. Yormark's company Sunrise Sports & Entertainment (SSE), which owns the Florida Panthers has a contract to operate the facility. And it's a sweet deal: SSE pays roughly $5 million per year to rent the arena, which covers about one-third of the bond obligation used to build the facility (the public pays the other two-thirds). The first $14 million per year in profits goes directly to SSE. Profits above $14 million are split, with the county receiving 20 percent. This year, BankAtlantic Center's projected profit is $12.8 million not enough for the county to receive any money.
But now, a few people willing to spend millions on Trump's condos will get their own "keys" to the BankAtlantic Center, access to the facility's helipad, a private ticket window and entrance, and a premium seating section available only to them. The name? "Trump Row."
How much money, New Times asked, is Yormark's company raking in by renting out the public asset?
"I'm not going to tell you that," he replied.
The paper got a similar response when New Times asked to see records of the business arrangement between SSE and Trump that involves the public arena.
"The BankAtlantic Center is a private entity that is not doing business on behalf of the government or any governmental agency," responded SSE attorney Ed Wildermuth. "As such, its records are not subject to the public records law."
Apparently, that's a typical response. It turns out that even public officials are kept in the dark about how SSE makes use of the arena that public money built.
"The executives at Sunrise Sports & Entertainment are very entrepreneurial but also very secretive," says Deputy County Attorney Noel M. Pfeffer.
Under the terms of its contract with the county, SSE must provide an annual report and financial accounting. County commissioners and staff have never requested additional records from SSE, though they may have a legal right to inspect certain documents, Pfeffer says.
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The use of publicly financed arenas to benefit the wealthy is a nationwide phenomenon, says Neil deMause, co-author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit.
The BankAtlantic Center's arrangement with Trump "sounds ridiculous, but it certainly follows the trend of luxury suite holders getting special access to and privileges at public stadiums," deMause says.
At Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts, for example, taxpayers built a private road to be used only by premium ticket holders.
So far, Yormark and Trump International have no plans for a millionaires-only road to the arena. But there's always time for new plans to be announced at another "private party."