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Mortgage company CEO gets top job at Mahaffey Theater

ST. PETERSBURG — Bill Edwards, a maverick mortgage company executive, is at last the boss of the Mahaffey Theater, the city-owned performing arts center that has struggled to compete against like-sized venues in Clearwater and Tampa.

On Thursday, the City Council voted 7-1 to award the job of promoting events and managing the theater to Big 3 Entertainment, a musical promotions company that Edwards owns.

It was a dramatic turnaround for Edwards, who nearly won the job in 2004 but walked away after questions arose about an overseas marijuana conviction that was later overturned.

Edwards convinced Mayor Bill Foster and the council that he could transform the Mahaffey into a bustling theater with top acts that can help revive downtown. Karl Nurse was the lone vote against Big 3, a company that has promoted glitzy shows in Las Vegas and at the MGM Grand Theater in Foxwoods, Conn.

"It's time for us to get to work," Edwards, 66, said afterward. Sporting shades, a suit and no tie, the Treasure Island multimillionaire showed little patience for further questions.

Asked what theater patrons can expect, Edwards waved his hand: "I'm done answering questions."

Big 3 beat out Ruth Eckerd Hall Inc., a nonprofit that runs the successful theater by the same name in Clearwater. After the vote, Ruth Eckerd Hall officials declined comment.

The current Mahaffey operators, Pennsylvania-based SMG, also bid on the job.

"We are disappointed," said Bob Papke, vice president of Live Entertainment, an SMG subsidiary. "We would have enjoyed to continue to manage the theater."

Council members said Big 3 was the best bet for the city, even if none of the company representatives had experience in running a venue like the other two companies.

"Big 3 is potentially the riskiest in that they don't have the experience," said council Chairman Jim Kennedy. "But that risk is outweighed by the individuals involved and that they are local and that Bill Edwards is part of the community."

Edwards, a locally grown financial wunderkind, almost had the job in 2004 with the support of then-Mayor Rick Baker.

But city officials then learned about Edwards' pot bust in Greece.

A package containing 21 marijuana cigarettes and 0.16 ounces of loose marijuana was mailed to a flight attendant on Edwards' jet. Edwards told authorities it was for his back pain, and he was charged with possessing a narcotic substance for his own use. A Greek judge convicted Edwards and fined him roughly $1,700 for the misdemeanor. His conviction was thrown out on appeal. Three weeks after the initial conviction, he dropped his bid, blaming unwanted media attention.

Foster, then a council member, said the arrest was troubling.

"Transporting through the mail? That bothers me," Foster said in a 2005 Times story. "Doing it in a foreign city? That shows you're not thinking. The quantity bothers me, too."

Foster had no such reservations Thursday.

"I'm not going to comment on something I may have said six years ago, or on something that was alleged to have happened six year ago," Foster said. "(Big 3) had the best proposal of the three who bid on the Mahaffey."

Asked Thursday if the council vote vanquished any lasting residue from his previous bid, Edwards said no.

"This wasn't about that," Edwards said.

Only Nurse expressed doubts about Edwards' ability.

"Big 3 hasn't run a venue like this before, while Ruth Eckerd Hall is the best in the country," he said. "The programming is the biggest risk. What sort of acts will play there now? I don't know."

Until 2005, the city staff and a nonprofit foundation managed the Mahaffey. That year, the city hired a private company, SMG, to operate it in hopes of making it more lively.

But Mahaffey repairs were still getting done more than a year into SMG's contract, hampering efforts to book top acts. "The Mahaffey didn't open until a year into the contract," said Anita Treiser, a consultant with SMG. "If you see what's been going on recently, you'll see an increase in performances on stage."

Still, there was a perception that SMG was losing ground to Ruth Eckerd Hall and Tampa's David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

Council members have expressed displeasure with SMG, and their comments made clear that the company was out of the running by the start of the meeting Thursday.

What hurt Ruth Eckerd was a fear that it would relegate second-tier acts to St. Petersburg while steering top acts to Clearwater, said council member Jeff Danner.

In the end, it was Edwards that swayed the Council to choose Big 3 over Ruth Eckerd Hall.

"He's a guy who everything he's touched has been a success," Bill Dudley said. "I have no reason to think that won't be the case with the Mahaffey."

The winning bid

Big 3 Entertainment promised to lower the public subsidy required to run the Mahaffey Theater, projecting $1.23 million in public money would be needed over five years. The company, owned by Bill Edwards, proposed more events at less risk to the city and showed strong marketing expertise and local ties. Ruth Eckerd Hall made it clear it would cost the city more, at least in the beginning. The theater needs more than $900,000 every year from the city to keep running. That would have grown to about $1.2 million under Ruth Eckerd's management. But in exchange, there would be a busier schedule that would help grow a foundation to raise donations that would help lower the subsidy in later years.

Mortgage company CEO gets top job at Mahaffey Theater 04/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 8, 2011 12:12am]

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