LAKEWOOD RANCH — You could almost guess the abandoned hockey arena’s saga in Lakewood Ranch wouldn’t end without one last plot twist.
And so it was.
The firm that toppled a pair of 70-ton wall panels Friday as part of a dismantling project spearheaded by arena-owner Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, is run by a 52-year-old local hockey player who had season tickets to the ECHL minor league hockey franchise that was supposed to play in the arena.
“This is really not a day to celebrate,” said Mark McCabe, owner and president of C&M Road Builders Inc., which used a 35-ton excavator to push the sections over, creating a deep boom heard by employees of businesses a quarter mile away on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.
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In 2005, arena owner Sal Diaz-Verson Jr. stopped paying the construction bills, leaving the arena half finished and ultimately leading to Friday’s events. The 10 remaining panels should be down by next week, McCabe said.
Like huge trees felled by a lumberjack, the panels seemed to hang in the air for a second then, in slow motion, begin to topple over. When they smashed to the ground, a cloud of dust spread over an acre like a mini-mushroom cloud, accompanying the boom.
“If a big truck was underneath that when it fell it would flatten it like someone stepping on a Coke can,” McCabe said.
McCabe plays on the Florida Leafs in the over-35 hockey league at the Ellenton Ice & Sports Complex. LGM Contracting, the local company that supplied the heavy machinery for Friday’s dismantling, is owned by Lou Merucci, who is a 62-year-old goalie on McCabe’s team.
“This was definitely bittersweet for me because I am a member of the local hockey community,” McCabe said. “I’m a player and a fan and I was really looking forward to seeing minor league hockey here. I had committed to season tickets.”
McCabe is receiving an undisclosed fee from SMR for the dismantling, but he is taking a chunk off the bill because SMR is giving him the remains of the arena.
He is recycling 100 percent of the arena’s rubble. The fallen concrete walls, after they are chewed up by his company’s stone crushing giant jackhammer, will turn into 8,000 tons of road base, which could to be used by his company to build two miles of residential roads, McCabe said.
There are also piles of rebar and steel bracing plates that will go to a steel recycler.
There were 35 panels built, making up the three walls that went up before the project ran out of money.
“It’s time to close one chapter and open another,” said Bill Jarvis, vice president of commercial construction for Lakewood Ranch Commercial Realty. “We are exploring options. We don’t know what will happen with this site yet.”
McCabe was emotional when his workers tore out the piers supporting what would have been bleachers.
“It was very, very well built,” McCabe said of the work of the construction firm, Walbridge-Aldinger. “There was a tremendous amount of reinforcing steel in the walls and in the columns. There was no doubt this would have served as a hurricane shelter. We found out early what we were up against.”
The concrete panels were a foot thick. Walbridge-Aldinger had used a “tilt up” construction process where a form is built on the ground and the walls are literally are poured just like a house slab would be poured.
“They brought in a huge crane and picked the panels up and set them in place,” McCabe said. “They did it that way to save money on transporting them here.”
The arena saga began in February 2002 when hockey consultant Larry Kish and developer Chuck Madden settled on Schroeder-Manatee Ranch as a promising location for a minor league hockey franchise and an arena.
Diaz-Verson Jr. convinced Kish and Madden that he was the man to be a partner in the $70 million arena.
Thousands of season tickets were sold in advance.
Only 40 of the 110 events scheduled for the first year were hockey. The rest were events such as arena football, the circus, Disney on Ice, the National Basketball Association developmental league and others.
SMR finally wrested the arena away from Diaz-Verson Jr., who lost a nearly year-long fight in federal bankruptcy court to maintain ownership.