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Change on the way for Mahaffey Theater, Port of St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — A new Pier isn't the only change coming to the city's waterfront.

The city-owned Mahaffey Theater may get new management, and the city's port could receive a major overhaul.

Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council talked about both changes recently while reviewing the bids of the companies competing for those two jobs.

The Mahaffey has been managed since 2005 by SMG, a Pennsylvania company that oversees 222 arenas, convention centers, stadiums and theaters in North America and Europe. Its contract expired this year, but the company is bidding for the job again.

Wes Westley, SMG's president and CEO, said in a letter to the city that its management of the Mahaffey has helped the venue become more self-sufficient with a wide array of events, such as the Florida Orchestra, Broadway Across America, pop music concerts, and variety acts, such as the Jerry Seinfeld appearance in 2009.

The Mahaffey has an operating deficit of about $934,000, said Chris Ballestra, the city's director of downtown enterprise facilities. The venue has about as many show nights as it has vacant, or dark, nights, which is about the national average, he said.

Two other companies are competing for the job: Big 3 Entertainment Group, out of St. Petersburg, and Ruth Eckerd Hall Inc., a Clearwater nonprofit foundation that manages a competing venue of the same name.

"My concern is that there would be a conflict between booking dates there and here and how their foundation would weigh in on that," said council member Jim Kennedy.

Foster said Ruth Eckerd Hall competed for the management contract five years ago, but concerns of a possible conflict helped scuttle that bid.

"We would have a tough time getting over that again," Foster said.

But council member Karl Nurse said Ruth Eckerd Hall didn't necessarily have a conflict.

"Potentially, it's a net gain because you have one person booking two of the biggest venues in the area," Nurse said.

Whoever gets the job, there will be a push to generate more income for the facility. Catering revenue, which lags behind the national average, could pick up early next year when renovations to the Mahaffey's kitchen are completed. Council member Steve Kornell says the Mahaffey could host a music festival like South by Southwest in Austin and market the facility around the city's downtown.

"But making money is not the only issue here," Kornell said. "It's the diversity of programming, the orchestra, the theater."

Officials received the bids just two weeks ago and haven't had time to analyze them. Next month or early next year, they will provide the council with an analysis of the bids. The council will choose a firm by April.

The city also received three bids to transform the Port of St. Petersburg into a destination for marine research and megayachts.

The council was underwhelmed by the proposals from Marinas International, of Dallas; Global Marina Partners, of Delray Beach; and St. Petersburg Grand Harbor.

"I was really perplexed that we didn't have anyone with megayacht experience apply for this," said council member Bill Dudley. "I thought we would attract someone."

Megayachts are manna from heaven for ports and marinas. They bring in high rents from the ultra-rich and don't require much upkeep. But they do require some capital expenses on the front end. That's one reason why the city didn't get good responses, said council member Jeff Danner.

The city is seeking a 10-year lease, which might be too short a period for an operator to spend money to build such a specialized facility and expect to recoup the investment.

Danner favors expanding the lease to 20 or 25 years. However, that would require voter approval because any lease longer than a decade that affects parks or waterfront land requires a referendum.

Ballestra said city officials will review the proposals from the three companies, then decide whether to put the lease question up for a vote.

"I've been pushing for us to do something," Danner said. "But I'd rather wait and see if the referendum will pass so we can build a world-class amenity. Megayachts can really change downtown."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

What's next?

The Mahaffey Theater: Officials received three bids from companies seeking to manage the downtown venue. They will scrutinize them, then next month or early next year present an analysis of the bids to the City Council. The council will select a firm by April.

The port: The city received three bids to transform the Port of St. Petersburg into a destination for marine research and megayachts. The council was underwhelmed by the response and may decide to wait for a better offer. The city is seeking a 10-year lease, which might be too short a period for an operator to spend money to build such a specialized facility and expect to recoup the investment. Council members have talked of expanding the lease to 20 or 25 years, but that would require voter approval.

Change on the way for Mahaffey Theater, Port of St. Petersburg 11/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 20, 2010 3:31am]

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