Hockey great Wayne Gretzky expressed support for building two hockey rinks in Palm Beach Gardens before the project suffered a devastating crosscheck from city officials.
Gretzky, who recently bought a home in Gardens, had expressed interest in using the $43 million sports complex for his youth hockey school before the city terminated its relationship with the nonprofit behind the project.
The Great One’s interest became apparent in internal city documents provided late Friday to OnGardens.org that revealed the city’s reasons for quashing the deal.
The decision to cancel became public Nov. 3, when City Councilmember Mark Marciano raised it during the council comment portion of the meeting, OnGardens.org exclusively reported on Friday.
The nonprofit Palm Beach North Athletic Foundation failed to meet four fundraising milestones over two years and sought a city-backed bond to fill the void, City Manager Ron Ferris told the City Council in a blistering Oct. 31 memo.
While the city manager referred to the bond request as “an irrevocable guarantee” of up to $2 million in debt service, the nonprofit called it “limited support” to replenish a debt service reserve fund only if needed.
The city terminated the nonprofit’s contract to build two ice rinks and a gymnasium in the North County District Park on Oct. 18, drawing outcry from just one of the five City Council members, Marciano.
In his Oct. 31 critique, Ferris described “repeated failures of PBNAF to meet any fundraising milestones” and said the foundation had raised only $300,000 in three years.
In documents submitted to the city, the foundation said it had amassed contributions and pledges totaling $3.7 million despite the difficulty of raising money during a pandemic and stock market downturn.
In his memo, Ferris feared not only having to replenish annual debt payments of $1.5 million to $2 million per year but getting stuck with the entire debt, which he put at $30 million over 20 years.
He also pointed out that the financial plan would cover construction of the ice rinks but not a proposed gymnasium and would still require raising $15 million in contributions (although the foundation spelled out one scenario requiring just $11 million in fundraising).
The city awarded the contract to the foundation to build the two-story complex on 14 acres of the county-owned North County District Park in October 2019 and the county agreed in March 2020. The complex would include 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.
Wayne Gretzky hockey school?
In a July 29 report to the city, the foundation headed by financial planner Mike Winter, described previously undisclosed support from Gretzky, saying the hockey Hall of Famer has “expressed interest” in hosting the Gretzky Hockey School at the facility.
Gretzky runs the school, which opened in 2014, with his son, Ty, who also lives in Palm Beach Gardens. It is offered at 12 locations in North America.
In May, he tweeted that his two grandsons are the Florida Panthers’ “biggest fans.”
Gretzky, who played in the National Hockey League from 1979 to 1999, holds the record for the most goals scored in a season (92) and the most career goals in the regular season (894) and in all games including playoffs (1,072).
The foundation also has support from hockey Hall of Famer Denis Potvin and former football star and north county developer Tucker Frederickson.
Audited statements presented by the foundation showed $3.7 million in contributions and pledges, including a $1.25 million commitment from insurer and wealth manager NFP, a New York-based company that recently took offices at the DiVosta Towers near the Gardens Mall.
The report also cited support from the Florida Panthers Foundation and the Palm Beach Kennel Club.
Before he proposed a bond issue, Winter told the city that raising money during a pandemic and subsequent stock market downswing has been difficult.
“The economy and political climate have caused significant uncertainty, which in turn has impacted willingness to make significant decisions quickly. Several donors have made initial smaller investments of $100,000 or less, with a promise of increasing those commitments once the midterms elections are past and the economic climate has stabilized,” he wrote.
“In addition, several donors have agreed to make commitments with an understanding that the money being provided up front will aid in moving the pre-construction work to completion, but with terms stating that the majority of the funds will be provided once we have broken ground and started hard construction.”
Rather than meet an oft-extended deadline to raise $7 million, Winter asked the city to make the next milestone $12 million by Feb. 28, 2023.
City rejects bond options
The documents provided by the city do not indicate the city’s response but on Oct. 14, Winter and investment banking firm Ziegler met with Ferris and city officials and spelled out three bond scenarios to obtain a low-interest, tax-exempt bond.
They would range from a $22.7 million bond buttressed by $20 million in contributions to a $35.4 million bond with $11 million in contributions.
Cash flow from the project, which is expected to generate more than $2 million a year in net operating income, would go toward paying off the debt. The city would back that up.
The city’s termination letter came four days later, drawing criticism from Marciano, who questioned the decision and asked the city manager to make it part of his public report at the Nov. 3 City Council meeting. When Ferris did not bring it up, Marciano did, raising the issue publicly for the first time.
“Unless there is a true alternate PPP (public private partnership) that is ready to engage with the city, I don’t see the benefit in terminating this agreement at this time,” Marciano wrote. “Also, if there is no alternative at this time, the idea of the city building it’s (sic) own recreation center at taxpayer expense is not a viable or reasonable option.
“The thought of building a taxpayer-funded project that will be significantly less impressive and inclusive than the proposed PBNAF project doesn’t fit the standards set by the staff and residents of this great city,” he wrote.
Marciano’s request for a workshop to discuss potential uses of the site, backed by Councilmember Marcie Tinsley, drew opposition from Ferris and went unheeded.
Winter has refused to comment, saying he still hopes to complete a deal with the city.
No information on competing proposals
No other City Council member replied to the Ferris email, the documents show, but one prospective member did. On Nov. 2, Ferris forwarded his memo outlining his reasons for terminating the agreement to Bert Premuroso and Dana Middleton, two candidates for City Council.
Premuroso, a banker and former council member, replied: “Thanks for the update. Bad timing all around for this project to get going and the city cannot be on the ‘solo’ hook for any future debt commitments.”
At the Nov. 3 meeting, Ferris said the city had received seven expressions of interest in the 14-acre site since the October 2019 award to PBNAF. He said he would meet with at least three proposers but refused to tell the council what they were proposing, saying those discussions were confidential under state law.
To shield those proposals, the city appears to be acting under the Request for Proposals issued in 2018 that drew just one responsive bidder, PBNAF. When asked to provide any newly issued RFP or details of the subsequently submitted proposals, the city provided no information.
That indicates the proposals were not made in writing because if they were, the city is required by state law to say why they weren’t provided and cite the controlling statute.
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.