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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Foster weighs in on Mahaffey Theater decision



ST. PETERSBURG -- It's one of the biggest decisions the St. Petersburg Council will make this year: Picking the manager for the next five years of the city's Mahaffey Theater, which has struggled to remain competitive with other similarly-sized venues like Ruth Eckerd Hall and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

On the eve of the council deciding between three bidders -- Ruth Eckerd Hall, Inc., Big 3 Entertainment, and the Mahaffey's current operators, SMG -- Mayor Bill Foster has weighed in.

Foster released a memo today announcing that he favors Big 3 Entertainment, which is owned by Bill Edwards, a mortgage company executive who proposed managing the theater in 2004 before aborting his bid after unwanted press attention.

Foster said Big 3's ability to reduce the city's $900,000 annual subsidy of the venue, along with an ability to provide quality programing and limit the number of nights the theater isn't used, convinced him that Big 3 was a better choice.

"Big 3 Entertainment has put together an impressive management staff that will leverage sister company resources to expand programming and simultaneously reduce risk at the theater, something critical in this economic environment," Foster wrote.

Until today, Foster wasn't saying who he was going to recommend. Last week, he said he was waiting for assurances that the Florida Orchestra, which calls the Mahaffey its home, will be assured the dates it needs to succeed. Whether Foster's recommendation will make a difference on the people who will actually pick the Mahaffey's next manager -- the eight council members -- is another issue.

City Council Member Karl Nurse said that his predecessor, Rick Baker, would have weighed in sooner.

"Baker would have told us three months ago who he would have favored, and then tried to convince us to go in that direction," Nurse said.

Instead, Foster's staff wrote a four-page summary of all three bids, which are all quite different, and made no recommendations. Council members said last week that although they are scheduled to vote on awarding the bid on Thursday, they have so many questions that they may need to push back the vote until their April 21 meeting.

Thursday's City Council meeting begins at 8:30 a.m., but the Mahaffey Theater will be discussed at the end of the meeting.

-- Michael Van Sickler, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 3:54pm]


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