As the Tampa Bay Lightning top brass join Lakewood Ranch officials for a special announcement Friday, some excitement lingered online of what could be and what might have been.
The announcement appears to be most likely a business partnership as Lakewood Ranch was featured on the largest indoor HD jumbotron in North America for a team segment during the Lightning's opening night.
But when you read hockey and Rex Jensen, it brings up some memories of what could have been in Lakewood Ranch with the Forum at Lakewood Ranch, originally called the Bradenton-Sarasota Forum. And most likely, renamed for a corporate sponsor if ever built between Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and Pope Road near the Esplanade.
Lightning fan blog Raw Charge was the first to raise speculation about a potential arena deal on Wednesday, hours after the announcement, but if it would be that big of an announcement, it would make sense that Jeff Vinik plus a third party that would fund a franchise and arena would also be present. That's not happening, according to the agenda.
But it doesn't keep me from dreaming.
The project was approved in March 2004 and was under construction until it suddenly stop. A team called the Gulf Coast Swords was lined up to play the the East Coast Hockey League—the same league as the Florida Everblades in Estero— that is a AA developmental league for the National Hockey League.
Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the East Coast Hockey League didn't respond to inquiries about the potential for the return of an arena or a minor league hockey franchise one day in Lakewood Ranch.
Heck, an 11-year-old Bradenton kid by the name of Mitchell Hudson had even designed the team's logo, the Bradenton Herald reported in 2004. It was that close.
So what happened to the failed dream of the Gulf Coast Swords and the Forum at Lakewood Ranch?
A lot. Season tickets were sold, corporate sponsors were lined up and a team called the Columbus Cottonmouths were poised to move to Lakewood Ranch, and a financial failure came into play along with lawsuits, squashing the dream like a triple overtime goal in Game 7.
Or more like celebrating an empty net goal when you whiffed on the puck.
The Bradenton and Sarasota area proved it would be supportive when 1,300 season tickets were sold for the 7,400-seat arena that was set to have a corporate-sponsored name, the Bradenton Herald also reported in that 2004 story.
BBB Architects in Ontario were gracious enough to provide Patch with color renderings and looking at that and the building plans still in files at the Manatee County Administration Building that can make the toughest sports fan cry looking at the practice rink that would be built adjacent to the arena. A sports cafe with a front entrance. Many of the features of what an updated Germain Arena would have, which the firm also constructed. BBB is now working on the renovation of Madison Square Garden.
All of it was for naught as the builder of the Forum at Lakewood Ranch, Waldbrid Aldinger, didn't have the money to build on the Schroeder-Manatee Ranch land because the $10 million in checks from arena and ECHL franchise owner Sal Diaz-Verson Jr. didn't come, The Bradenton Herald reported in 2009. Diaz-Verson, a former AFLAC insurance president, owned the organization and arena under a company called DVA Sports.
The man had lived a mostly private life in his Ritz-Carlton condo in Sarasota and carried kidnapping insurance, The Hearld-Tribune reported, and is now the chief executive of Crosspeer Cloud information technology company. A sale of the arena to Toronto business woman Susan Jamieson had former Indiana Pacers executive Robert Metelko involved on the periphery, but not as an owner. Still, that never came to fruition after Shroeder-Manatee and Jamieson couldn't come to an agreement, the Herald-Tribune reported in 2006.
That lead to lawsuits of alleged fraud against the lending bank, but ultimately foreclosure, the Gulf Coast Business Review reported in 2009. The rink stood partially constructed on Center Ice Parkway until its demolition in 2009 when Schroeder-Manatee bought the foreclosed arena for $100, The Herald-Tribune reported in 2009. Fortunately, a curious YouTuber posted a video of what once stood before it was torn down, and you can see it above with the photos.
Visit 12205 Center Ice Parkway today and all you'll see is rubble and construction equipment at the site off of Pope Road and Rangeland Parkway near the new Esplanade community.
The ECHL team folded in Georgia as a result, but was revived in 2004 as a Southern Professional Hockey League team—a lower level league of hockey that is not part of the NHL's developmental system.
There were even plans for an Arena Football League team and a National Basketball Association Developmental franchise as well, the Herald-Tribune reported in 2006. Professional wrestling may have made a stop here, too. Those teams were set to move to Lakewood Ranch, too, but had to find other cities.
Then Sarasota County almost had its own publicly funded arena that could have landed an ECHL team, but that plan beside Robarts Arena was struck down in 2003, The Gulf Coast Business Review reported then.
Today, there's some semblance of hope as the housing bust is slowly ending, that the Lightning have new committed owners to the community and that there is enough time to heal from those financial wounds.
However, the building permit expired. There's no chatter at the Manatee County Planning Department about this project ever being revived. Everything would have to pretty much start from scratch, though BBB Architects are ready with a plan if you ever need one.
The project still stands as a rare gem as far as the sports world is concerned—it was a privately funded arena. Especially in 2013, that's an attractive bet as public monies and government support are drying up for public stadiums (see: Tropicana Field).
Sarasota, Longboat Key and Lakewood Ranch isn't at a shortage of multi-millionaires either to foot the bill. Knock on a door at the Ritz, Siesta Key or on Longboat Key and you're bound to find someone with deep enough pockets, and it's a bonus that a few of them are Canadian.
(Hi Mr. Kenneth P. Rowe, may I interest you in a hockey team? No? How about you Former Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams? I'll check back with you.)
It's a matter of finding the right one, and what happened was that the wrong one was involved.
For now, there will be no hat tricks in Lakewood Ranch. No hail marys, triple-doubles either. Just a sleeper hold on, but it's not time to tap out yet.
This version corrects Robert Metelko's involvement with the proposed Susan Jamieson deal.