ST. PETERSBURG — After Bill Edwards spoke earlier this month about how he was spending $2 million in private money to spruce up the Mahaffey Theater, he was embraced by the City Council and Mayor Bill Foster as a conquering hero.
"What you guys have done is fabulous," gushed council member Wengay Newton.
"It's amazing," agreed Steve Kornell.
Left unsaid said during the 40-minute discussion is that city taxpayers still subsidize the theater. Indeed, at the same meeting — just three hours later — council members tentatively approved an additional $244,000 to cover theater expenses that hadn't been budgeted.
Unlike the fanfare that greeted Edwards' investment, council members approved the public contribution with no discussion. Of that amount, nearly half went to Edwards' musical promotions company.
When added to the $744,000 in taxpayer money to run the Mahaffey last year, plus $450,000 for lighting improvements, the city's total contribution grew to $1.4 million last year. That keeps it in line with what taxpayers have been paying to keep the theater running in recent years.
Amid all the attention Edwards is getting for his own investment in transforming the Mahaffey into a luxurious nighttime hot spot, the continued need for taxpayer support is getting lost in the glitter.
Edwards basked in the glow during the Nov. 3 meeting, in which the council approved a measure that would let him raise private donations so he could renovate the theater.
"This would be private funding and not city … funding," council Chairman Jim Kennedy said.
"That's right," Foster told council members, and everyone laughed. "I'm not coming to you asking for money."
On Wednesday, Edwards was on center stage again during a sneak peek at the Mahaffey for VIPs and the media.
They marveled at the new carpeting, bars and furniture.
"At no cost to the taxpayers, we've made improvements to the building," Edwards said to applause.
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Edwards was hired in April to do something that hasn't been done in years: make the Mahaffey less reliant on taxpayer money.
The $244,000 up for a final vote Monday covers expenses that are allowed under clauses in contracts with the operators. To close out its contract with SMG, the previous operator, the city is spending $131,000 for an assortment of expenses.
In its June contract with Edwards' company, Big 3 Entertainment, the city agreed to pay for "out-of-pocket" costs leading up to Big 3 taking control of the Mahaffey.
It billed $5,755 for building repairs. It charged $7,000 for 10 new computers and $6,000 for a top-down cleaning of the theater's stainless steel and marble surfaces. In a sweeping renovation of the complex, it spent $50,000 of city money on state-of-the-art cash registers — expenses that Edwards doesn't mention in his descriptions of the Mahaffey renovations made already.
Foster said these costs are a small amount of money compared to what Edwards is spending. "This place needed a lot of work," the mayor said.
Optimism is running high that Big 3 will reduce costs. For starters, Big 3 won't charge a $9,000 management fee after 13 months, relying instead on revenue it can produce.
"In five years, I don't believe there will be a subsidy for the Mahaffey," said Bob Churuti, a board member of the theater's foundation.
For now, at least, the subsidy persists. To keep the theater running and operating this year will require an estimated $670,000, plus $350,000 for repairs that will be determined largely by Edwards.
He's raised his stature of late, buying the nearby BayWalk shopping complex in September and helping raise money for Foster's scholarship program by hosting a Martina McBride concert.
As for the $2 million coming from Edwards, city officials are awaiting word.
"He's got some things he wants to do at his own expense," said Clay Smith, the city's assistant director for downtown facilities. "We're still learning what those things are."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8037.