Throughout the holiday week, YourObserver.com will be counting down the top 12 stories of 2009 (one from each month) from our Longboat, East County and Sarasota Observers. Check back each day for a reprinting — and any relevant updates — of the biggest news items of the year.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JAN. 22, 2009.
LAKEWOOD RANCH — Dressed in a pinstripe business suit, Sal Diaz-Verson steps through a sea of overgrown grass and weeds toward the vision he birthed more than six years ago.
Concrete walls and an unfinished stairway and bleachers bear the spray-painted marks of a dream on hold. And each way Diaz-Verson turns, there’s a hint of what was and he hopes will come.
Here, on 60 acres off Center Ice Parkway in Lakewood Ranch, Diaz-Verson still dreams of a 167,000-square-foot multi-purpose arena that will become home to an ECHL team, host sporting events and concerts and serve as a massive hurricane shelter for the tri-county area.
The project has been on hold since early 2005, just a few months after construction began. Diaz-Verson fell ill during that time, leaving the project in the hands of his business partner. When he returned to work later that year, the project was at a standstill because contractor Walbridge-Aldinger and several other creditors had not been paid.
The bank motioned to foreclose on the property in March 2006, and Diaz-Verson has worked feverishly to prevent the sale of the property, delaying it twice by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Creditors say Diaz-Verson is optimistic. He takes that as a compliment.
“I don’t give up easily,” he says. “I’m an optimist. I think I can do things given the time and the opportunity.”
On Feb. 23, a federal bankruptcy court judge will decide whether Diaz-Verson’s plan to reorganize his company, DVA Arena, will be enough to bring the project to fruition. If his plans are approved, Diaz-Verson expects construction to restart by July. If his plans are not approved, a foreclosure sale of the property will be set.
A fight for opportunity
Born in Cuba, Diaz-Verson and his family came to the United States by ferry when he was 8 years old, just three months after Fidel Castro came to power. His father, Salvador Diaz-Verson, was a well-known journalist who wrote against Castro and communism and organized an international anti-communist league of journalists. His voice against the government was one Castro wanted silenced, and the family’s crafty exile and his father’s name meant that Diaz-Verson would never again be able to return to the country of his birth.
The family landed in Florida with enough clothing for a weekend trip and quickly set out to reestablish their lives in Miami.
Diaz-Verson began working when he was 13 to help support his family and later went on to Florida State University, where he earned a master’s degree of business administration in finance.
After working in New York for several years, Diaz-Verson headed to Columbus, Ga., in 1974 to help his sister and brother-in-law run their insurance agency, American Family Life Insurance Co., later renamed Aflac. By 1979, he’d become the company’s president and chief investment officer.
“The total assets at the time (when I started) were $45 million,” Diaz-Verson says. “When I retired in 1993, I was managing $12 billion.”
Diaz-Verson didn’t last long in retirement, and soon he began his own ventures, including an investment firm, a mutual fund and a bank based in Atlanta. His work dealt primarily with investments and numbers, but his interest in music sparked the creation of an entertainment company. He also has real estate investments in Alabama and led the creation of a biodegradable fishing lure.
Failures have come along the way, but Diaz-Verson says he sticks with the principles he’s learned over the years: remember your end goal and make sure it’s realistic, don’t lose your temper along the way, and never fall in love with your investment.
“Don’t lose focus on what you’re trying to accomplish,” he says. “There can be a lot of distractions.”
Hitting the ice
Diaz-Verson’s vision for a multi-purpose hockey arena formed back in 2002, a few years after he and his nephew purchased a minor league hockey team, the Columbus Cottonmouths, in Columbus, Ga. When an ECHL membership had opened, Diaz-Verson paid $2 million for the membership, and the team moved up.
But two years later, Diaz-Verson realized he could not maintain a team at its location in Georgia. He and his nephew started looking for places to move and realized the most profitable model in the hockey business was that of Teco Arena in Estero, where the team’s owner also owned the facility.
The ECHL wanted a team in the area, and the demographics in Sarasota-Manatee were better than in the Naples market.
“We had to make the team lucrative,” Diaz-Verson says. “We couldn’t find anything in Sarasota, so we looked in Manatee County. We decided Lakewood Ranch was the place that made more sense for us to be. It’s a great community.”
After Diaz-Verson purchased the land, his nephew decided against moving to Florida, and Diaz-Verson plunged ahead with the dream they had created.
Did he regret the decision? Diaz-Verson shrugged.
“I just now have to plan for the future,” he says. “I still think it’s a great idea and something this community really needs.”
The site’s location just 2.1 miles from Interstate 75 and less than a mile from State Road 70 translate into accessibility, particularly for residents of the tri-county area.
According to Diaz-Verson’s reorganization plan, DVA Arena can pay off about $16 million to creditors, complete arena construction and be profitable within two years of the arena’s opening.
Diaz-Verson says he has secured $37.8 million from a New York City-based lender and has solicited Miramar Securities to raise the remaining $16.2 million needed to finish the project.
He plans to bring in hockey and other sports such as basketball and tennis, in addition to musical concerts and other events, such as Disney on Ice. Average ticket costs would be about $12, Diaz-Verson says.
DVA will own the facility, making the entity responsible for maintenance of the facility and for booking entertainment and sports. Diaz-Verson estimates the project will bring 100 to 150 jobs to the area.
“This is a project that I think is going to change the community,” he says. “There’s not much to do in the tri-county area. There’s no sports in the area. Friday and Saturday nights, where do people go? They can go to bars. You have to drive to Tampa to see concerts. I think it’s going to be a very successful arena.”
The site’s infrastructure — water, sewer, power hookup and three retaining ponds for drainage — are already in place. All that awaits now are the court’s blessing to move forward and financing to get the construction crews back to work. Diaz-Verson says it’s only a matter of time.
“I love the project,” Diaz-Verson says. “I’d like to see it through.”
Despite Diaz-Verson's efforts, he could not secure funding to keep the project moving. During a foreclosure sale April 21, Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch was granted ownership of the 60-acre site on Center Ice Parkway. SMR demolished the existing arena walls in November. The concrete, rebar and other materials from the project will be recycled.
Contact Pam McTeer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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