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Bill Edwards starts splinter fundraising arm for Mahaffey Theater

ST. PETERSBURG — Two years after taking over management of the city's struggling Mahaffey Theater, local businessman Bill Edwards is breaking away from the foundation that has helped support the theater for over a decade.

Edwards, who made his fortune in the mortgage industry, claims to have raised $2 million — a combination of his money and donations from others — and has set up his own theater foundation. Called the Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts, the non-profit would assume control of fundraising, stripping away most of the Mahaffey Foundation's current responsibilities.

Under Edwards' plan, which was announced to Mahaffey Foundation board members late last month, his group would control memberships, corporate sponsorships, and the courting of big donors. No longer responsible for these activities, the Mahaffey Foundation's sole task would be raising money for Class Acts, an educational program for schoolchildren that holds 15 to 20 events per year.

"This is not an unfriendly thing, this is a friendly thing," Edwards said Friday. "It's good for everybody. It takes a lot of the weight off their back and puts it on mine and I have no issue with it."

The Mahaffey Foundation wants to focus solely on educational activities, Edwards insisted. However, he acknowledged that the foundation did not ask for the change. And though he has already established his foundation and started raising money, the Mahaffey's full board has yet to vote on whether to relinquish its duties. Only its executive committee has endorsed the plan.

Mahaffey board members learned about Edwards' plans March 27 via an email sent by Robert Kapusta, the foundation's chairman.

"To date, most of the dollars raised for Foundation payroll, programming and marketing the Theater has come from the Bill Edwards group," Kapusta wrote. "The Edwards Foundation for the Arts has generously taken on the challenge of fundraising for the Mahaffey Theater and to their credit has already raised significant sums."

Reached by phone Friday, several board members said they had learned about Edwards' plans recently and did not understand the details well enough to comment. City officials who oversee the theater, which still relies on public subsidies, said they were not informed of Edwards' plans.

St. Petersburg real estate developer and Mahaffey board member Darryl LeClair knew little about the new foundation and how it would work with the existing one. He said he had been distracted the past few days with several funerals and was not in the loop on what was happening with the Mahaffey.

"I'm not familiar with the details yet," said Robert Burns, another board member. "I don't know anything to object about."

Public records suggest that Edwards began planning the shift long before he informed the board. In November 2012, he filed to change the name of his charity group American Veterans' Children Fund to the Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts. A few months later, he eliminated ticket fees, doing away with one of the Mahaffey Foundation's major revenue sources.

One reason for the change, Edwards said, is that half the money the foundation took in came from him. To date, he said he has given a total of $850,000.

The Mahaffey Foundation's financial information shows that at the end of the 2012 fiscal year, its revenue was $2.8 million, making Edwards' contribution closer to 30 percent of its total.

By setting up his own foundation, and choosing its board members, Edwards will have a greater say over how that money is spent.

"It gives us control of our destiny," he said.

It's unclear how many of the Mahaffey Foundation's current board members will stay if the group loses most of its control over the theater's fundraising. At least two board members have resigned in the last 60 days, including Mindy Grossman, chief executive officer of the Home Shopping Network. The full board will meet April 10 to discuss the changes.

"I would anticipate that there will be a number of people that will say thanks but no thanks," Kapusta said of the possibility that more board members will leave. "But we'll see how that plays out."

Edwards said that some Mahaffey board members would likely move over to his foundation.

Mark Mahaffey, whose family gave its name and money to the theater years ago, could not be reached for comment.

Reporter Katherine Snow Smith and researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

Bill Edwards starts splinter fundraising arm for Mahaffey Theater 04/05/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 10:43pm]
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