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Residents deliver frosty response to $40 million Palm Beach Gardens ice rink proposal

Rendering of dual ice rinks proposed for Plant Drive Park.
Palm Beach North Athletic Foundation
Stet News
Rendering of dual ice rinks proposed for Plant Drive Park.

About 50 people descended on Palm Beach Gardens City Hall Thursday to express outrage over the decision to lease the city’s oldest park to a private group to build an ice-rink complex.

"Plant Drive Park is not just located in the old part of the city," resident Samantha Marks said. "It is the heartbeat of the city. Without this part of Palm Beach Gardens, there would be no signature city.

"This part of our city is home to teachers, first-responders, nurses, small-business owners, professionals of all walks of life but most of all families," Marks continued. "Families who do not want their neighborhoods turned into a traffic nightmare for an ice rink with a bar down the street from their children’s school and their home."

"I ask you … would you want this in your backyard? Would it add to your quality of life? The answer is 'no.'"

Most of the 26 people who spoke to oppose the park’s demolition said they knew nothing of the lease plans until after the council acted. They spoke during a portion of the meeting set aside for general public comment, a rare show of opposition in a city that prides itself on lack of controversy.

The City Council agreed April 4 to a 40-year lease of the park in one of the 75-year-old city’s oldest sections to the Palm Beach North Athletic Foundation, a nonprofit group backed by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.

The lease can be canceled if PBNAF fails to raise $6.5 million in six months and $40 million in 15 months. 

It calls for revenue sharing. The city would get $75,000 annually in years two to five, $100,000 in years six through 12, $125,000 in years 13 to 18, $150,000 in years 19 to 30 and $200,000 beyond 30 years.

The city has moved 12 pickleball courts off the site and is working to help Palm Beach Gardens High School replace the softball field that dominates the park.

A man and a boy walk by people sitting in a room.
Joel Engelhardt
Matt Vanderpol and his son, Luke, return to their seats after telling the Palm Beach Gardens City Council they support the skatepark.

But most of the public outrage stemmed from the loss of the free skatepark, which opened in 2002, and the city’s characterization of the entire park as “a marginal recreational facility (that) attracts malcontents who engage in illegal activities, including vandalizing the premises,” as reported April 2 in Stet News.

Speakers wore green T-shirts emblazoned with "PBG Malcontents Unite! Save Gardens Skatepark and Plant Drive Park." They collected 2,800 signatures onlineand urged the council to rescind the lease.

Former Mayor Mike Martino, a frequent critic, argued that the lease, under Resolution 21, had been signed without reaching out to the community.

"I find it unacceptable, almost outrageous, that Resolution 21 was scheduled for a vote without public notice, information and a public hearing to explain the need for it," said Martino, a 59-year city resident.

"It was secretive. The public was entirely excluded. The welfare and interests of the public were not considered," he said.

City filing
Stet News
A brown box surrounded by parking behind Palm Beach Gardens High School represents the ice rink at Plant Drive Park.

The proposal for Plant Drive Park came after the city canceled a lease in November 2022 with the same group, PBNAF, to build an ice-rink complex at the Gardens North County District Park. City Manager Ron Ferris told the council at the time that PBNAF had failed to meet financial thresholds.

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who lives nearby, continues to support the project but it also has financial support from newly arrived billionaire Larry Robbins, a hockey aficionado. Also, the new site allows PBNAF to focus solely on an ice complex, without the earlier requirement that it build a gymnasium.

The move to Plant Drive Park first gained notice at the end of August, when The Palm Beach Post reported that the city had received an unsolicited bid from PBNAF.

"We talked with them, we said, 'You know, it could work there (at the park),'" city Purchasing Director Km! Ra told The Post. "So that became an opportunity."

The city opened the site to competition in June 2023, receiving two proposals and selected PBNAF. By September, negotiations between city staff and PBNAF were underway, city documents reviewed by Stet News revealed.

In February, an agreement appeared imminent, the internal documents showed, but an issue arose over financing and the lease was not put before the City Council until April.

At that meeting, only two speakers addressed the council, one supporting the project and the other, the father of a softball player, raising concerns about the loss of the softball field. The three representatives of PBNAF did not speak.

No public meetings were held to gather comments on demolishing the existing park. The city has not announced any plans for rebuilding the skatepark and basketball courts.

So a grass-roots group of "malcontents" formed to protest.

To counter the malcontent characterization, organizer Heather Deitchman studied city police records that showed other parks had more calls than Plant Drive Park.

"To be clear, I am not saying Plant Drive doesn’t have police problems and police activity issues. It does. I’ve seen it. I looked at all of the records," she told the council. "But Plant Drive is seventh out of 11 Palm Beach Gardens parks for policing."

Amanda Tice of Lake Park told the council how the skatepark has become a nourishing place for her 9-year-old son.

"This is a place for community. And it breaks my heart to see a place of community being taken away," Tice said.

Joel Engelhardt
Stet News
Helen and Eric Brown before speaking Thursday at the Palm Beach Gardens City Council meeting.

Many speakers wondered how already congested 25 mph streets would safely handle traffic from a hockey rink.

"Introducing a sports bar into a residential neighborhood near schools and churches is not only reckless but it endangers children," resident Evan Emerson said.

Helen Brown, who lives across the street, said she worried about the influx of traffic reducing neighborhood property values.

"I really hope you take this into consideration that we live in this area and this is going to be a tremendous impact to us," she said.

Brown’s husband, Eric, added: "I don’t know if any of you guys have been on that block. There’s two ways in and out: Lilac and Holly. But other than that, because of I-95, there’s no other real way in and out. And the traffic is going to be awful."

In a statement, PBNAF said the project will “enhance the neighborhood by providing a specialized recreational amenity not commonly found in the region for both kids and adults to enjoy.”

Council members did not respond to the speakers but Mayor Chelsea Reed told them they had been heard.

"You need to allow time for council to make a consideration," she said. "These are not things that happen overnight or instantaneously."

To watch Thursday’s discussion, which starts at the 1-hour, three-minute mark, click here.

This story was originally published by Stet News Palm Beach, a WLRN News partner.

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