In 1994, Ft Pierce Jai-Alai is sold
The first time I saw them, they were waiting downstairs near the switchboard. This was not unusual since Donovan had various people waiting to talk to the president of World Jai-Alai. But these two did not look like bankers, lawyers, politicians, or any local businessman from South Florida.
One man was quite a bit older than the other. They were both short and dressed in completely different attire. The older man was wearing a tailored suit, gold cuff links, and an expensive tie. The younger, a white long-sleeved shirt with open collar, rolled up sleeves, and a pair of wrinkled pants.
My office was right down the hall from Dick Donovan’s. I usually could hear the introductions and chit-chat as they entered his office. Donovan, being from Massachusetts had a distinctive accent. The other two spoke with an engaging Southern drawl. The door closed, the three of them inside Donovan’s office.
A few hours later, Dick called me an invited me to lunch. “I want you to meet some people,” he told me. “Meet me downstairs in 15 minutes.”
This was the first time I met Bennett and Bennett “Benny” Collett, Jr.
The five of us, including Paul Rico, Chief of Operations, went to a small restaurant inside one of the popular boutique airport hotels. The Colletts, an obvious father/son team, came across as good old country boys from the hills of Kentucky. I kept wondering what the heck were they doing here!
Bennett, Sr. seemed extremely shrewd and very likeable. He talked about his company, Lexicon Corporation, which had made handheld language translators. Benny was more laid back, seemed personable in a very disarming way. His father dominated much of the conversation. Neither seemed to know much about Jai-Alai. After lunch, we said our goodbyes. I figured I probably would never see them again. But I was dead wrong.
Within a few months of that meeting, Donovan told us that Ft. Pierce Jai-Alai was going to be sold. And guess who the buyer was: Freedom Financial Corporation, owned by none other than the Colletts. The purchase price was $3 million dollars. The deal would be completed in February of 1994.
World Jai-Alai had continued to struggle financially since the 1988 player’s strike. Even though Dan Licciardi had performed a miracle with only a three-day shutdown following Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the business continued to wane. The banks were putting enormous pressure on World to begin liquidating some assets to pay back the loan. Few were interested or could agree on a price. Somehow, this Kentucky businessman appeared interested in the Ft. Pierce facility and made an offer. Apparently, the bankers demanded acceptance of the deal.
Though World Jai-Alai was shrinking, we still had our two major frontons, Miami and Tampa, along with the smaller facility in Ocala. The Colletts had worked out a deal with Donovan to supply players and support for Ft. Pierce.
But, for me, the reality that our company was now getting smaller was very disconcerting. Also, Martin Fleischman Advertising had just lost the advertising commissions from Ft. Pierce Jai-Alai. It was a pay cut, something that I feared as a distinct possibility when making the original proposal. Now, it quickly came to pass. Fortunately, it was one of our smaller facilities.
The mid 1990s were a continuing struggle for the tracks and frontons in Florida. Our product was fairly stagnant offering our games as well as simulcasting. The state prohibited anything else.
But the cruise ships “to nowhere”, the Indian gaming with video lottery terminals (slots), bingo and poker, plus the Florida Lottery were killing us. So, in 1996, we were able to convince the legislature to give us poker with a $10 pot limit. It was not much, but it was something.
Poker rooms were going to be our savior, hoping later that we could get them to drop the $10 pot limit restriction. Plans were being drawn up to build beautiful poker rooms in most of the facilities. Our frontons in Miami in Tampa already had some exiting space but needed major renovations to make first class poker rooms. To do this, I had the answer.
Donovan and Rico had played golf with my brother, Sol, many times. They knew he was one of the best architects around. He had already constructed the clubhouse/restaurant overlooking the court at Ocala Jai-Alai. I was thrilled when they hired his firm, Fleischman/Garcia Architects, to build our two major Poker Rooms.
It seemed the success of poker was going to determine our survival and the possible survival of the entire sport of Jai-Alai in the United States. We had to turn things around, become financially viable again. I was becoming optimistic. I was hopeful. This could spur growth again.
And then, at a corporate meeting at the Saddlebrook Resort, following days of golf and poker, frivolity and fun, a tearful speech by our owner jarred us and the Jai-Alai world.