ST. PETERSBURG — Beethoven or Britney? The Moscow Ballet or Toby Keith? Arts education or Ke$ha?
From now until early May, the City Council will select the next manager and operator for the city-owned Mahaffey Theater. It's a choice that comes down to finding the right mix of high and low art to strike a balance between community access and box office receipts.
Two for-profit companies and one nonprofit organization are competing for the prize. It will be awarded by the City Council, whose eight members are sifting through more than 1,400 pages of bid documents while already struggling with what it would mean for the city if they choose the wrong applicant. Lest they forget, Mayor Bill Foster is reminding them.
"The proposals are wildly different," Foster told them last week. "You will set the tone for this theater for the next five years. You will set the vision for this performing arts center. We can't afford to get it wrong."
What's at stake is not just the economic fate of a facility that loses about $900,000 a year to operate — a tough sell even during good economic times. Complicating the equation is that the Mahaffey is also considered the city's chance to establish downtown St. Petersburg as Tampa Bay's arts destination, tied to the new Salvador Dali Museum and the Chihuly Collection on Beach Drive. If it fails to connect, many will consider this upcoming decision on the Mahaffey's new manager a blown opportunity.
When it was built in 1965, the Mahaffey was the only 2,000-seat performing arts center in Tampa Bay. But it has strained to compete with similarly sized venues that have opened since, such as Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.
Until 2005, the city staff and a nonprofit foundation booked its acts, which led to a widely held perception that only second- and third-tier acts were ending up on the Mahaffey stage. The city changed direction that year, completing a $20 million makeover and hiring a private company, SMG, to operate and book the facility.
SMG is competing to get its contract renewed. It had been owned by the Hyatt Hotel Co. and Aramark Corp. when it was selected by City Council to manage the Mahaffey in 2005. In 2007, however, it was bought by American Capital.
A poor economy has hurt attendance, city officials say. Still, SMG representatives say they've reduced the city subsidy from a high of about $1.4 million and helped make the Mahaffey more competitive recently 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.
Its bid says the emphasis on diversity will continue.
"Simply stated, the diversity of programming is the branding identify of the Mahaffey Theater," its proposal states. "To that end, we will continue to work tirelessly with our prime tenant, the Florida Orchestra, to successfully balance their programming objectives for the venue with those of the city while preserving prime booking opportunities."
SMG proposes to be paid $100,000 the first year, with increases tied to the consumer price index for the next four years. It proposes reducing the city's subsidy by 35 percent.
The other for-profit company bidding on the Mahaffey is another familiar face. Big 3 Entertainment is owned by Bill Edwards, the mortgage company executive who proposed managing the theater in 2004 after striking a deal behind closed doors with then-Mayor Rick Baker. Edwards proposed paying the city $8 million and $2.35 million more in a forgivable loan — about half the cost of the renovation. But he dropped his proposal after the St. Petersburg Times published articles scrutinizing his business record.
His bid this time around is tied to a team more experienced with entertainment venues, including ones in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Branson, Mo.
Big 3's bid proposes donating its first-year management fee of $109,000 to the Mahaffey Theater Foundation as a matching grant. After that, the group proposes an incentive fee of up to $300,000 if it can reduce the city subsidy below $750,000. If the subsidy increases, it would give up the fee.
But the bid stresses profit over community access. That's good for pumping up profits to reduce the city's subsidy, bad for allowing more people in at a price they can afford.
The third bid, by Ruth Eckerd Hall Inc., goes in the opposite direction. It proposes a $100,000 management fee to put on a busy schedule, with many acts that would increase attendance by 75 percent in its first year. But it would raise the subsidy, at least at first, to about $1.2 million.
That bid states that the rise in the subsidy will be offset by an increase in economic activity in downtown because the Mahaffey will be busier. In addition, once a new slate of events is established, it will be easier to raise money for the Mahaffey, it stated.
Foster said he will make a recommendation to the council, but said he needs more time to assess the proposals.
He said Thursday's 2:30 p.m. meeting at City Hall with the bidders should clear things up.
Council member Jeff Danner said he has many questions.
"We have a long way to go," he said. "All three bids are pretty different. That's the difficult part of it. It makes it hard on us to decide which one is realistic."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.