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Ruth Eckerd Hall president interested in managing Mahaffey Theater

The president of Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall has been in preliminary talks with St. Petersburg officials about assuming management of the Mahaffey Theater.

SMG, a global venue management firm, beat out Ruth Eckerd four years ago to win the right to manage the Mahaffey, which is in the city's downtown. Under St. Petersburg's contract with SMG, the city has had the right since November to end the agreement with 60 days' notice.

Robert Freedman, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Ruth Eckerd Hall, said the Mahaffey has always been attractive. Joint local management could create "synergies" between the venues, Freedman said.

He's developing a proposal for management of the Mahaffey. Ruth Eckerd's board would have to approve the plan. Freedman said he wasn't sure when it would be done.

"We are trying to do our due diligence as quickly as possible is all I can tell you at this point," he said.

St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Jeff Danner said he would be willing to look at a proposal, but is happy with the way SMG is running the Mahaffey. Danner said the current competition between the two venues has benefits, and he worries where the hot shows would land if both were under the same management.

"Somebody, somehow is always going to be second," Danner said. "I don't know how you could convince me otherwise."

Danner said not all his council colleagues are as pleased with SMG and a decision was recently made to do a management review of the Mahaffey.

Chris Ballestra, who directs St. Petersburg's downtown enterprise facilities, said SMG has worked hard and he's certainly not resolved to end the city's relationship with the company. However, SMG's performance hasn't thrilled everybody, he said, and Ballestra welcomes Ruth Eckerd's proposal.

"There are some expectations that have not been met," Ballestra said. "And the city should clearly keep all doors open."

David Rovine, general manager of the Mahaffey and an SMG employee, said city officials had not spoken to him about Ruth Eckerd's interest.

There have been some tough patches for the theater under SMG, Rovine said, but operations have been within budget and popular acts like the singer Seal and saxophonist Kenny G are on tap.

Rovine said the Mahaffey is strong and poised for even greater success. He expressed surprise that the city would be in talks with Ruth Eckerd.

"Things have gone very well," he said. "SMG believes in this market. We look forward to a long and successful relationship with the city."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

Ruth Eckerd Hall president interested in managing Mahaffey Theater 02/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 10, 2009 9:57pm]
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