City officials have canceled a deal three years in the making to bring a $43 million sports complex with two ice rinks to a Palm Beach Gardens park, claiming that they have better, unspecified offers to pursue.
The termination of the contract with the nonprofit Palm Beach North Athletic Foundation came in private correspondence from the city manager and only became public when raised during the comment portion of the Nov. 3 City Council meeting by Councilmember Mark Marciano.
A public records request to the city for the most basic correspondence referenced during the meeting remains unfulfilled two weeks later.
But what can be pieced together from the 20-minute council discussion is that the nonprofit asked the city to lend its name to a bond issue and the city said no and terminated the deal.
Marciano asked the council to hold a workshop to find out what the community wants at the 82-acre North County District Park off Central Boulevard and across 117th Court North from Timber Trace Elementary School. It’s been four years since the city spelled out its desires when it sought proposals for a 14-acre portion of the park in 2018.
City Manager Ron Ferris, however, told the council a public meeting would do no good at this point as he was personally negotiating with at least three other potential builders.
“I don’t want to prejudge anything but I think there are some very viable projects that you would be happy to have on that land — and they are funded,” Ferris told the council Nov. 3. “We will verify everything but that’s what we do and bring that back to you. Yes, you can go have a charrette if you want to. That’s fine. But our process has to continue.”
City officials told the council they could not legally disclose any information about the unsolicited proposals, which they said they received over the years since awarding the contract to the foundation in October 2019.
“Before anything can happen it has to come to you for an approval with the contract and an agreement,” Ferris told the council. “But … until we’ve got a decision to bring to you a project, we’re not allowed to talk about it.”
Two emails mentioned at the council meeting — one from Ferris to the council, the other from athletic foundation founder Mike Winter to the council — have not been made public, despite a records request submitted by OnGardens.org to the city on Nov. 4.
Backed by hockey greats
The foundation, headed by Winter, a financial adviser, proposed a 213,000-square-foot complex with two ice hockey rinks, each with 500 seats; a gymnasium; an indoor playground; squash courts; a jogging track; community rooms; and a rock-climbing wall.
The foundation expected to raise $33.6 million in charitable donations and $10 million through a bank loan by May 2023, with construction complete by December 2028. It projected generating $5 million in revenue by the third year, enough to cover all expenses and the bank debt.
In return for its 50-year lease, the foundation would pay the city at least $50,000 a year.
The contract stated that the city had no financial commitment toward the project and could terminate the agreement if financial milestones were not met. It also said the city would not be required to “provide any kind of bonding support, credit guarantees or any type of financial commitments.”
Among sports stars supporting the project are hockey Hall of Famer Denis Potvin; Mike Eruzione, who scored the game-winning goal for the United States in the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet Union; a member of the Miami Heat’s original 1988 roster, Billy Thompson; and former New York Giants fullback and north county developer Tucker Frederickson.
A committee of officials from the city, the county and the county Sports Commission endorsed the proposal from the foundation, the sole responsive bidder, in March 2019. The city approved the contract in October 2019.
Since the county owns the park, the Palm Beach County Commission had to sign off on the contract, which it did on March 17, 2020, just as the COVID pandemic shutdowns took hold. County officials said earlier this week they did not know the agreement had been terminated.
Council members have recorded video messages urging the public to contribute. Even Dana Middleton, who is running as-yet unopposed for a council seat, aired a message of support as chairwoman of the PGA Corridor Association.
In June, the foundation received a $1.25 million pledge from insurance broker NFP, which supports initiating a hockey program created by hockey Hall-of-Famer Pat LaFontaine.
However, the money isn’t enough as the project apparently lagged during the pandemic in reaching its fundraising milestones, such as $7 million in the first year and $17 million by the end of 2021.
Still hoping to forge a partnership with the city, Winter declined to comment on the fundraising milestones and his recent proposed changes.
Through Thursday, the city had not responded to a second, more comprehensive public records request, submitted on Nov. 11, seeking amendments to the contract and details of other proposals.
‘I think this deserves a workshop’
But the 20-minute public discussion at the Nov. 3 council meeting offered insight into the city’s behind-the-scenes actions.
“We all received a letter from the city manager about the Palm Beach North Athletic Foundation and how they were no longer the group that will be providing a private-public partnership on that parcel,” Marciano said.
“I think this deserves a workshop,” he said. “So, I would love to see if we could invite the public, invite any interested entity, obviously the staff, to come and just tell us what they think we should put there. What do we want?”
Marciano, who is term-limited and leaves office after six years in March, continued: “I understand Palm Beach North Athletic Foundation had difficulty with fundraising. I know they presented an alternate method of funding which didn’t meet the standards that the staff felt comfortable with. (Later, he added that the city did not want to back a bond, however no details of a bond proposal have been made public.)
“But I think we should find a date and find a time when we can sit down and, if not talk about them specifically, but ‘What is the next step?’ I would ask you guys to support that effort and we find a date that we could sit down and do that,” he said to his colleagues on the council.
While Councilmember Marcie Tinsley supported Marciano’s request and Councilmember Rachelle Litt tried to frame the debate on their behalf, Councilmember Carl Woods supported the administration’s approach and Mayor Chelsea Reed did not commit herself.
In a council-manager form of government, the council typically sets policy to be executed by the city manager. Policy-setting, however, is not spelled out in the Palm Beach Gardens City Charter, which says the city manager is “responsible to the City Council for the administration of all city affairs and employees.”
No workshop was scheduled.
Four bidders ‘100 percent’ interested
To offset the request for a workshop, Ferris explained that seven proposals had come forward since the award of the contract to the athletic foundation.
Purchasing Director Km! Ra told the council that he reached out to all seven and four said “‘Yes, absolutely, 100 percent, we are interested.’”
“At least three of them so far I think there’s some potential there, actually expressed potential that they’re fully funded.
“You could certainly have a workshop if you want but the process is ongoing right now to try to move those proposals along and we will be probably scheduling meetings and talking to these people to see if they’re really for real or not.”
“I wish that the other proposal was more viable than it was. It was certainly worthwhile. A great effort but we’re moving ahead with the process like we normally would.”
When Marciano pressed for details of the other proposals, Km! Ra told him they couldn’t discuss them publicly because of state rules for solicitations.
“We can’t come here and say ‘Hey, John Brown, whoever, has made contact with us.’ I can’t tell you that. Because the state says that contact is confidential,” he told the council. “Until we meet with them … and then we say ‘OK, tell us what you’re proposing.’ … If we decide to move forward, the state says we have to advertise publicly for three weeks.”
‘The city can’t do that’
When asked by Tinsley if the public can weigh in on general concepts, the city’s purchasing director said, “That’s kind of iffy.”
Litt tried to rephrase the question, asking: “Does the city have an idea of what we would like to see there and is that something that can be shared with us? Or do we have to wait until we see what the individual companies are offering us to make that decision?”
“The city can’t do that.” Km! Ra told her, saying the city had to abide by the original 2018 Request for Proposals.
Ferris jumped in to clarify that the city administration would review the proposals and bring it to the council for approval.
Tinsley again pressed for a public meeting, “something where we can engage everybody on this piece because (the park) is something we’ve all worked so hard on and this is the last piece of the puzzle.”
Woods replied that even though losing the ice rink proposal “is a big bummer” it puts the city “back at ground zero.”
“So now it’s back to staff to redream or revisualize what they’re going to use with that … with the vendors or proposals they have coming at them. As citizens, who we are, it’s not our turn yet because they don’t even know, they don’t even have any pen to the paper on anything.
“Until staff does their job we’re in a wait-and-see program with the rest of the community. Am I wrong?”
Ferris replied “You’re on point.”
He added, “We like to see things as unique and as serving the public as we can, too. And I assure you we’re not going to bring back anything less than that.
“You can thumbs up it, you can thumbs down it. But that’s the way it works. … That’s what we have to do.”
‘We’re going to be giggling over it’
Tinsley asked if the council needed to vote on adding a discussion of the athletic foundation’s proposal to an upcoming council agenda.
“No,” Ferris said. “We have no contract. We have no agreement. We have no relationship. … I will not agenda a non-contract.”
He added, “But I would be happy to tell them if you can provide us a viable funding project that doesn’t put the city’s bond rating or the money (at risk) I’d be happy to hear from you.
“I can’t endorse the funding system method that they presented. I can’t do that. And I can’t wait. … We’ve got a deadline to meet,” he said, referring to the 2028 completion deadline. “When you go for financing and building and construction and everything that has to be done, it sounds far away but it’s not.”
Woods said it’s the council’s responsibility to support staff so the project moves along.
“We know they’re going to bring back something magical. It won’t get by Natalie (Crowley, the planning and zoning director) and staff if it’s not. And then it’s gotta get by us. So by the time they present us something we’re going to be giggling over it, I’m sure. We were giggling over the ice rink but it just didn’t work out.”
Shortly after publication of this story, the city provided the documents, as described in this story:
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.
3 thoughts on “Gardens cancels $43 million indoor sports complex”
A secret ‘behind closed doors’ deal negotiated by a politician with no public review? What could possibly be wrong with that? Don’t you trust that these elected officials have only the public’s best interest in mind?
We’ll put. I could not express it more succinctly.