ST. PETERSBURG — Attendance at the city-owned Mahaffey Theater jumped by more than 50,000 in the last fiscal year, says mortgage magnate and music producer Bill Edwards.
Edwards, who took over the struggling venue in 2011, attributed the 34 percent spike to better marketing, theater upgrades and bigger acts.
While recently updating the City Council, Edwards said his firm also reduced operating costs by 39 percent compared to the prior three fiscal years.
"I personally have invested $4 million at no cost to the city or to the taxpayers," Edwards said about venue improvements, marketing and show promotions.
In fiscal 2011-2012, Mahaffey held events on 270 days compared to 220 in the prior period. Those events drew 190,000 guests compared to 142,000 in the earlier year.
In April 2011, Edwards' company, Big3 Entertainment, beat out two other companies to manage and operate the facility. He took over in September 2011.
In the first two months, Edwards said he spent $2 million on new carpet, new bars, a fresh coat of gold paint for the lobbies, 13 plasma TVs, a new website, a splashy ad campaign and upgraded VIP lounges.
Dave Metz, St. Petersburg's downtown facilities director, told the council that Edwards' update is a "good news report" for the city.
Edwards also pointed out that 20,000 students have come through the doors for educational programs.
Upcoming acts include Natalie Cole, the Boston Pops, the China National Symphony and Smokey Robinson.
The improvements haven't come easy.
Critics, Edwards said, called him insane for taking over the Mahaffey. He agreed with them after finding issues like cracked ceilings and tarnished stainless steel throughout the building.
"Truly we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into," he said. "We realized we had a much bigger job than we ever anticipated."
Council members lauded Edwards for saving taxpayers' money.
"Thank you for what you have done," council Chairwoman Leslie Curran said. "We have had great responses from the community."
Council member Wengay Newton, who urged Edwards to hold some gospel events at the theater, pointed out that one of the city's crown jewels is becoming a major draw throughout the region.
"What you've done is nothing short of spectacular," Newton said.
Edwards said he isn't done. He plans to market the Mahaffey to other regions in the country with hopes of luring new business and residents to the city.
He added: "We look forward to a strong and promising new year ahead."
Mark Puente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.