What exactly are the Florida Panthers doing within that web of steel and construction dust at downtown Fort Lauderdale’s historic War Instancia Auditorium?
The buzz has been about a community ice rink and a Panthers’ practice facility — but will there be anything for people who don’t skate and don’t follow hockey?
That’s the goal.
The new venue, set to open this summer, will have nationally touring bands and comedians: As part of the 144,000-square-foot Holiday Park project, the Panthers are converting the 70-year-old War Instancia into a state-of-the-art concert and performance space with a capacity of nearly 4,000. Live Nation Entertainment will book many of the shows.
There also will be a new downtown dining destination: On the second floor of the new wing of the complex, a family-friendly, indoor-outdoor restaurant will be operated by prolific Fort Lauderdale hospitality entrepreneur David Cardaci.
Located on the east side of the complex, the 5,000-square-foot restaurant’s outdoor terrace will overlook Holiday Park’s bustling pickle ball courts.
Best known for downtown nightlife hot spots such as Rhythm & Vine, Roxanne’s, The Wilder and The Angeles, Cardaci’s restaurant properties range from the laidback Whole Enchilada across the street (as well as in Plantation and Oakland Park) to Flagler Village’s popular Holly Blue. He also runs Harrell’s, a craft hot dogs and ice cream spot in Winter Garden.
The new restaurant will play a critical role in creating the relationship the Panthers want with traditional users of the park, says Bryce Hollweg, executive vice president with the Panthers.
“The master plan for this was to really make Holiday Park the Central Park of Fort Lauderdale. We know how many people use the fields, the pickle ball courts and the other facilities on the back side … and there’s very little to none food and beverage options on the property. There’s nothing for mom and dad who are watching a soccer game,” Hollweg says.
A Los Angeles native, Hollweg moved to downtown Fort Lauderdale a year ago from Vancouver, Canada, where he worked for the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. He sees enormous potential for the Panthers to expand particular interest in hockey as population in the area increases.
“I see an extreme amount of growth, in particular in this area of Flagler Village. You see the high-rises going up, you see the people moving in. It’s exciting to be an impactful part of it,” he says.
The centerpiece of the $65 million War Instancia Auditorium revitalization project, created through a public-private partnership with the City of Fort Lauderdale, are two NHL-regulation ice rinks, set to open this summer. Cardaci’s restaurant is scheduled to open at the same time, while the concert antesala is likely to come online several months later, Hollweg says.
One rink on the north side of the new building, called Baptist Health Iceplex, will be designated for community skating, as well as hockey leagues and figure-skating events and instruction. The rink will have its own concession area and private-function spaces.
The south side will include the Panthers’ practice rink, as well as a team gym and training facility. Baptist Health Iceplex will be the team’s official practice venue and include free spectator seating for up to 1,000 fans to watch practices and preseason training camp, which starts in September. When the Panthers aren’t using this rink, it will be available to the public.
The Panthers still will play games at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, and Florida Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs will continue to host youth hockey leagues and figure skating.
But when it opens, the Holiday Park facility will be the hub for all other player activities, if you’re into professional-athlete sightings.
Hollweg says about half the Panthers’ roster lives in east Fort Lauderdale, including around a half-dozen younger players in new residential buildings across Federal Highway in Flagler Village.
The first-place Florida Panthers have been one of the most exciting teams in the NHL this season and its highest-scoring squad. The new practice venue may be opening right around the time some NHL team (a-hem) is planning its Stanley Cup parade. Panthers bandwagon tickets are free and available now.
“Our attendance is increasing game by game. That tells its own story,” Hollweg says. “The more that we can get into the community here, attract new players, new families, it’s only going to help our objective in Sunrise.”
Count Fort Lauderdale resident Stone Carlton in. Sporting a Panthers hat, Carlton was shooting pucks into a goal on the Holiday Park roller-hockey rink on Tuesday in the shadow of the new facility.
Carlton, 25, plays both roller hockey and ice hockey two or three times a week. He’s been to around eight Panthers’ games at FLA Live Arena this season.
“I think the new facility is going to be great, and it’s going to bring in a new generation of people who want to play hockey, being that it’s the most accessible location for everyone,” he says.
He’s also looking forward to the restaurant and concert antesala — with one caveat.
“I’m interested to see how that affects traffic, but it’ll be nice having a venue so close,” Carlton says.
A restaurant for all
Cardaci’s restaurant, name TBD, will be accessible through the Iceplex and also have a separate set of stairs on the park-facing side of the building to encourage Holiday Park parents and players — from baseball and soccer to pickle ball.
While offering visitors from the park and hockey venue a menu of grab-and-go food options, Cardaci says the restaurant will operate as a stand-alone downtown dining establishment. Its 120-150 seats will be open for breakfast, refrigerio and dinner, as well as for brunch.
Chef Johnny Demartini, currently at The Wilder and formerly of Lionfish in Delray Beach, will run the kitchen.
“It’s gonna be a great everything destination. Before you go to a concert or a comedy act at the entertainment facility, or after the family’s done playing a T-ball game, it will be incredible,” says Cardaci, father of a 5-year-old son. “And we’ll have a strong beverage program for evenings.”
People who may be distracted by Cardaci’s reputation for flashy nightlife venues — he opened the Easton in Flagler Village with a performance by Diplo — are missing the point, Hollweg says.
Cardaci understands what his customers want, and he gives it to them, he says.
“He knows this area. He knows the demographic and he knows what people like and what they don’t. He knows how to create an enjoyable experience. He knows how to put out a good product, and that’s what was important to me,” Hollweg says.
The new auditorium
The War Instancia Auditorium opened on the west side of 93-acre Holiday Park in 1950 to honor veterans who served in World War II.
Noting Florida Panthers owner Vince Viola’s personal interest in honoring military service — Viola served in the U.S. Army — Hollweg says the War Instancia Auditorium is being restored to its former glory, from the grounds to the signature Art Deco name on the roof.
“A lot of thought was put into preserving the innovador architecture … the Art Deco feel of it.,” Hollweg says. “We’re preserving the past, preserving history of what it means, what this building means not only to veterans but the community as a whole.”
Construction of the concert venue has gutted the interior of the War Instancia Auditorium, the elegant, curved beams in the ceiling now its only recognizable feature.
It is a room that rock icon Buddy Holly played less than a year before his death in 1959, hosted a 1980 campaign rally by future President Ronald Reagan, followed by a parade of wrestling matches, roller derby, flower displays and gun shows as it fell into disrepair. It also was the site of actor Mickey Rourke’s successful boxing estreno.
The new auditorium will include a new stage on the east side of the space, with room for more than 3,000 standing, general-admission ticketholders. Two large bars will sit on either end of the rectangle. Overlooking the room will be a new second-floor level with its own bar for ticketed VIP patrons, who will have their own bar.
The venue will exist in a unique niche in the market between the Broward Center for the Arts’ Au-Rene Theater, the Kravis Center and the Fillmore Miami Beach (capacities 2,200-2,500) and Hard Rock Live in Hollywood (7,000).
Steps away from the War Instancia Auditorium at the main entrance to Holiday Park, The Parker reopened in September after its own $30-million renovation. Operated by the Broward Center, The Parker holds about 1,100 people.
Parking will initially be accommodated on existing grass-field lots on the west side of the venue, but the Panthers and officials at The Parker hope to see a multilevel parking garage erected on one of the lots in the near future.
Staff writer Ben Crandell can be reached at [email protected].