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Will St. Petersburg's new mayor be able to turn the Mahaffey around?

Will the next mayor of St. Petersburg get Mahaffey Theater right? If he or she does, it will be a first in the troubled history of the city-owned theater on the downtown waterfront.

Neither Kathleen Ford nor Bill Foster, both of whom I interviewed this month, seem to have a decisive plan for the theater, or city arts policy in general, but there are some differences in what they say they would do if elected.

Something needs to be done. Several years ago, the city renovated the theater for $20 million, and the result was stunning, at least in opening up the lobby to a gorgeous view of the bay. But the theater continues to flounder in trying to find its niche in the arts and entertainment market. It lags far behind Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Tampa, and it lacks a clear identity.

In September, Broadway Across America terminated its contract a year early after having no success with a Broadway series over two seasons at Mahaffey. To be sure, the national promoter did a miserable job — the lineup of shows was inconsistent, to put it kindly, and effective marketing was nonexistent — but the woeful attendance gave the theater and city a black eye.

Here's an area where Ford and Foster differ. "I'd still like to take another crack at having a Broadway series," said Foster, 46. He can envision the city investing in upgrading the backstage to accommodate larger tours, if the money is available.

Ford, 52, thinks Broadway has no place at Mahaffey.

"Don't get me wrong," she said, "I love Broadway musicals, but I don't think we can compete with Judy Lisi," president of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, which presents a powerhouse Broadway series.

Ford and Foster sounded steadfast in their commitment to the Florida Orchestra, the Mahaffey's major tenant, both suggesting its role there could become even larger. Mayor Rick Baker, though certainly an orchestra supporter, was reluctant to commit to making Mahaffey the principal home of the orchestra and classical music in the bay area.

The city's contract with SMG, the national theater management firm that runs Mahaffey, is up for renewal in October 2010, and that could spur a pivotal debate over how to turn around the theater.

"I'm not happy with what's been done," Foster said. "I was on the council when we signed the contract with SMG. I don't know why it has failed, but we have too many dark nights. That's not acceptable."

Ford wants to rehire Ann Wykell, the longtime city manager of cultural affairs who was laid off in budget-cutting in April, and put Mahaffey under her purview. Now the department of downtown enterprise facilities is responsible for it.

"We need someone overseeing Mahaffey who has expertise in the arts, not some downtown facilities management person," Ford said. "The arts are different. As it is now, Mahaffey is kind of stuck out there under someone's control who really doesn't care the same way that an artist does."

Whatever happens with Mahaffey, the stakes are high. The theater receives a city subsidy of about $1 million a year, which won't change much until the seats are filled more often. That subsidy will be tough to justify in tight budgets.

But the potential is also high. In 2011, the new Salvador Dali Museum is going to open next to the theater, and the crowds that flock to that popular institution might be inclined to take in a show or a concert, too. What will Mahaffey have to offer?

Will St. Petersburg's new mayor be able to turn the Mahaffey around? 10/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 29, 2009 11:22pm]
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