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Don King KO'd His Plan for 'Mini-Madison Square Garden' in Florida, So Why Won't He Sell the Land?

Nearly Two Decades Later, Development Eludes the 53-Acre Property
July 2, 2018

Nineteen years ago this summer, boxing promoter Don King vowed in typically flamboyant fashion to turn a long-shuttered jai alai fronton in Palm Beach County, FL into a “mini-Madison Square Garden.”

The 53-acre site at 1415 45th St. in the tiny town of Mangonia Park is adjacent to the northernmost Tri-Rail commuter train station. King’s vision was to bring sporting events and concerts to the venue, attracting people from across South Florida, many of whom could come and go by train.

It would have been a transit-oriented development years before that phrase became part of the real estate lexicon.

But the dilapidated fronton still sits empty, the surrounding land vacant. The eccentric King’s plan never materialized, and a handful of deals and potential projects have fallen through too, including one to build a new spring training complex there.

It’s one of the last large tracts near Interstate 95 in a region starved for available land. The economy is humming. And yet the site is no closer to development now than it was nearly two decades ago.

“What will it take?” asked Rebel Cook, a longtime commercial real estate broker in South Florida. “It’s so unusual to have a prized property like that still vacant in a real estate market that’s as hot as it is.”

The fronton drew big crowds during the 1980s and was the only reason why some people knew the working-class town of less than a square mile even existed. Even today, the community of 2,200 residents, just north of West Palm Beach, is known primarily for the Tri-Rail station and old warehouses and strip malls.

A players’ strike in 1988 was the beginning of the end of the pari-mutuel sport, and the fronton closed for good at the end of 1994, according to the town’s website.

Except for the occasional high school graduation, the building was languishing when King acquired it in June 1999 for $6.25 million from the Rooney family, which owns the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Why his plan fell apart remains unclear. King, a South Florida resident, did not return multiple phone calls for comment.

In 2015, he told The Palm Beach Post:

Let the word go forth to friend and foe alike that I want to sell. And tell them, ‘This is a gold mine. And Don King wants to sell it. Because he wants you to do something to better the community.'

Town Manager Ken Metcalf said King is asking in the neighborhood of $30 million. The county’s most recent appraisal: $8.8 million.

Douglas Rill, a residential and commercial broker in West Palm Beach, said appraised value tends to fall about 20 percent below market value. He suggested the site probably is worth about $10 million.

“Generally, when you have a piece of property that sits vacant for decades, it’s pretty much (because of) price,” Rill observed.

Even so, he doesn’t think the gap is insurmountable, especially if King compromises.

“If you come up with a new concept, you can afford to pay more for it because the unique use makes it a destination,” he explained. “Some developer has to come up with a vision that supports a higher price.”

Neil Merin, chairman of the NAI / Merin Hunter Codman brokerage in West Palm Beach, doesn’t think King’s asking price is so unreasonable, considering how much industrial developers are paying for dirt these days.

Merin said industrial and flex space would work – or possibly some sort of workforce housing.

“The problem is two-fold,” Merin said. “Nobody wants to buy it without knowing what they could get approved there. And I think he (King) wants to have a say in what goes there, and he probably has some different ideas.”

Mangonia Park would benefit greatly if the site is ever developed. The town gets $260,000 a year in property tax revenue now, but that number would likely soar to more than $1 million annually if a vibrant development were to be built there, remarked Metcalf.

He noted that the extra money could help pay for utility system upgrades, more utility staff members and a much-needed beautification of 45th Street, the town's main corridor.

But during his nearly three years running Mangonia Park, no project applications for the site have come before the town council, though two or three times a month someone will meet with him to discuss the potential for the property. The manager said he listens to their ideas and gives them King’s contact information. But so far, nothing.

The council especially liked a proposal a few years ago from Palm Beach-based developer Victor Palacios to build retail, residential and a technology park using green energy, Metcalf said.

He doesn’t think the proposal is necessarily dead, though Metcalf said he texted Palacios a few months ago, and it bounced back as undeliverable. Palacios didn’t respond to messages sent through his company website.

The town is in occasional contact with King’s Deerfield Beach, FL office and is “anxious” to see something done with the property, according to Metcalf. The town’s preference is some sort of mix of residential, retail and recreation.

But whatever goes there, both King and the town want it to be sustainable – so they’re willing to be patient, Metcalf explained.

“It’s fair to say that we’re caught in the middle,” he said. “But I think of it as being part of a team. It’s going to take time.”

Still, he and other Mangonia Park officials can’t help but wonder what could be.

“When we speak about the future of the town,” Metcalf said, “We point in that direction.”

Paul Owers, South Florida Market Reporter  CoStar Group   
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