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New Mahaffey Theater management cheered by St. Petersburg City Council

ST. PETERSBURG

Just 63 days into his contract to run the Mahaffey Theater, Bill Edwards wowed the City Council on Thursday with a report of what he's already done to spruce up the city-owned facility.

His music promotion company has spent $2 million on renovations, including a new carpet, new bars, a fresh coat of gold paint for the lobbies, 13 plasma TVs, a new website, a splashy ad campaign, upgraded VIP lounges and backstage velvet rope areas, a new scent and an upcoming lineup that includes singers Marc Anthony and Don Henley, and comedian Cedric the Entertainer.

"That's what we did after 63 days," Edwards told the council. "The best is yet to come."

His estimate is that theater attendance will climb in his first year to 250,000, an increase of 45 percent.

As rolls go, Edwards is on an impressive one. In September, the mortgage company executive bought the struggling BayWalk shopping and entertainment complex for $5 million, $3 million less that what it went on the block for.

"I can't believe they sold it to me for that," he said. "I was shocked."

In April, Edwards' company, Big 3 Entertainment, beat out two other companies to manage and operate another struggling downtown facility, the Mahaffey Theater.

He officially took it over in September from SMG, and has moved quickly ever since.

"Working with Bill Edwards is like an amusement park ride," Mayor Bill Foster said. "It's a lot of fun but it moves very fast."

One key tenant is the Florida Orchestra. Its president and CEO, Michael Pastreich, said the difference between the management under Edwards and SMG is stark.

"I don't think I've seen such a cultural change before," Pas­treich said. "There's an immediacy, an attention to detail. When our patrons go into the Mahaffey, it's a better experience for them now. When you walk into the lobby, there's a crispness that wasn't there before."

Changes to how the theater plans for its future have also been made incredibly fast, said Robert Kapusta, a lawyer who is the chairman of the independent Mahaffey Theater Foundation. Under SMG, the foundation had trouble building a membership that could compete with rival theaters, such as Ruth Eckerd Hall. One problem, Kapusta said, was providing benefits to encourage loyalty among the well-heeled.

Typically, the way to do that is offer tiers of benefits, such a valet parking, VIP seating areas and opportunities to meet the performers. Under SMG, however, the foundation could never get the guarantee that those willing to pay could meet the entertainer.

That has changed under Edwards, Kapusta said.

"The difference is night and day," he said. "Everything is rejuvenated."

The foundation, which had just one volunteer asking for donations under SMG, now has a staff of five provided free by Edwards, Kapusta said. That includes new president Lara Shane, whom Edwards hired away from Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Edwards heard only raves Thursday from council members.

"I tell you, at 63 days we got more information than it felt like we did in the past four years," said Bill Dudley. "The city will be so, so pleased with what's coming up."

"That's mighty fast out of the box," Karl Nurse said.

"All I can say is wow," Wengay Newton said. "I've been on council for four years. The previous manager of the facility — all we got were excuses about what was wrong with the facility. They had 50 percent dark nights. . . . I knew it could be done, and I knew you guys could do it."

Surrounded by reporters afterward, Edwards said he's moving quickly because the theater badly needed an overhaul. The dressing rooms, which are sometimes the only view of St. Petersburg that artists see, were redone. The $2 million he's sunk in already he won't want back, he said.

"I didn't come into this to make money," Edwards said. "I'm doing this because it's what I want to do."

New Mahaffey Theater management cheered by St. Petersburg City Council 11/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 3, 2011 11:03pm]
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