A fancy $45 million makeover is coming to the War Memorial Auditorium in Fort Lauderdale and it looks like this: Art deco with a modern flavor. A little bit of ballet and a whole lot of hockey, including two chill new rinks.
“I think this park is going to be a showplace,” said Commissioner Steve Glassman, whose district includes Holiday Park, home to the War Memorial building. “I think this will really be the Central Park for Fort Lauderdale. It’s going to be a big attraction.”
The Florida Panthers’ War Memorial Benefit Corp. will foot the bill for a major overhaul of a structure that opened in 1950 as a popular venue for opera, symphonies and sporting events — and more recently, gun shows. The social purpose corporation, considered to be a hybrid of a for-profit and non-profit organization, combines a public purpose with the promise of a return on investment to shareholders.
Fort Lauderdale, as owner of the site just southeast of Federal Highway and Sunrise Boulevard, is kicking in an $800,000 grant and leasing the 7-acre parcel at $1 a year for 50 years. The lease began in June.
In exchange, the Panthers plan to renovate War Memorial, bringing a modern flair to the art deco spot perched on the western end of 93-acre Holiday Park. A new building to the east will feature two indoor ice rinks. One will become the team’s primary practice spot and the other will be open year-round to youth hockey leagues and public skates.
The project will likely break ground in March 2020 and open by the summer of 2021, said Sean McCaffrey, chief operating officer for the Panthers and director of the War Memorial Benefit Corporation.
A new 3,000-seat concert hall is in the plans, along with a rock climbing wall and rooms for off-ice activities like yoga, dance and Pilates.
The northern rink will be used for recreational hockey, youth hockey, youth figure skating and public skating.
The southern rink will be reserved for Panthers practice sessions about 75 times a year, McCaffrey said. Those sessions will be open to fans, who will get a chance to meet and get photos with the players.
“Fans and kids can come watch every practice,” McCaffrey said. “Our players are very community minded and they like the idea of exposing more kids to the game.”
The Panthers play in the BB&T Center in Sunrise and currently practice in the Florida Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs.
That will change when they start using the War Memorial rink, likely in September 2021.
“The Panthers will primarily practice out of the War Memorial facility,” McCaffrey said. “The players are excited. They do see the buzz of Fort Lauderdale.”
When the team isn’t using it, the rink will be available for use by the public.
The Panthers will still lease the rink in Coral Springs, but it will take on more of a focus on youth hockey, McCaffrey said.
Fort Lauderdale residents will get a 15% discount on figure skating, hockey, curling and public skating sessions. They’ll also get a discount on youth hockey recreational leagues registration and multipurpose communal meeting rooms.
At least one resident doesn’t plan to use the rinks when they open.
That would be Gary Olsen, an attorney who filed a lawsuit against the city and War Memorial Benefit Corporation in June in an attempt to block the project.
“I won’t be taking advantage of my 15% city discount,” he said.
Olsen says he’s used the tree-lined walking trail at Holiday Park for 35 years and doesn’t want to see it disappear.
“That trail and all the slash pines are going to go away,” he said. “There’s probably a couple hundred pines in that area. Some of those are 80, 90 years old. It would just be tragic if you take those away.”
At least 50 trees will be torn down, but four large oaks will be moved and 100 shade trees will be planted, McCaffrey said.
Glassman says most people are in favor of the Panthers coming to town.
“War Memorial has been a money loser,” he said. “It’s just a little rough around the edges. Now we have someone who is going to do something incredible and restore the building and add two ice rinks. That’s opening up a whole new world of opportunity for kids and their families.”
Another makeover is also in the pipeline: Holiday Park itself will be spruced up to the tune of $21 million, compliments of Fort Lauderdale taxpayers, who approved a $200 million parks bond in March.
A $10 million parking garage will rise on the property, freeing up more space for sports fields. The tennis center, tennis courts and concession stands will undergo renovations.
An earlier version of the story described the War Memorial Benefit Corp. incorrectly. It is a social purpose corporation that combines a public purpose with the promise of a return on investment to shareholders.
Susannah Bryan can be reached at email@example.com
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