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Salvador Dalí leaders want St. Petersburg City Council to put brakes on Grand Prix vote

ST. PETERSBURG — A battle is brewing over fine art and fences.

Leaders at the Salvador Dalí Museum and Mahaffey Theater, two of the city's most popular attractions, are asking St. Petersburg leaders to think twice before extending their contract with the Honda Grand Prix, one of the city's most popular events.

The City Council will vote today on a three-year contract extension, which would keep the Grand Prix here through 2017.

Dalí and Mahaffey leaders aren't against the race. They just want the city to shorten the 45 days every year that the contract allows the museum to be penned up behind walls of concrete and steel. The museum, at Bayshore Drive and Fifth Avenue SE, is inside the race course and sealed off from the rest of downtown for more than a month.

Dalí leaders, who have talked with Mayor Bill Foster and race officials about the issues, did not learn of the impending vote until Friday.

"This thing just blindsided us," Hank Hine, the museum's director, said by phone from Germany. "This hasn't been talked about in the press or any public forums. It's the wrong thing to do."

The Mahaffey Theater decided to close for two weeks this year during the race because the barriers and production trucks impede events.

Bill Edwards, whose entertainment company operates the city-owned theater, said he agrees that more needs to be done to mitigate the race's impact.

"I am certainly not against the Grand Prix," Edwards said. "We believe City Council has the opportunity to establish concessions from the Grand Prix to shrink the setup and breakdown of fences and tires. It's such an inconvenience for visitors and tourists during the busy season."

The barriers stood roughly from early February through early April in 2011. Foster said workers cut the time to 45 days this year.

The Dalí was not in its current location when the city signed an earlier race contract in 2004.

The city now has leverage to negotiate shorter periods for the barriers, Hine said: "The city should not just rubber-stamp the contract."

Foster said he understands the concerns. But he stressed that constructing a race track on city streets is complicated. The Federal Aviation Administration is the biggest hurdle because the race runs on part of the city's airport, he added.

The tracks and barriers need to be installed and removed during daylight hours to protect the public and work crews, he said. The city tries to limit the impact on businesses, Foster said.

"It is very hard to compress," he said about the time frame. "Everybody knew this event was there. It is not going anywhere."

In a recent memo to the City Council, the mayor urged council members to extend the contract. The race draws more than 150,000 visitors to the city, Foster said, and exposes the city to more than 200 countries. He stressed that worldwide competition is stiff among cities seeking races.

Extending the contract now will "enhance the wide variety of activities offered by St. Petersburg and its exposure locally, regionally and internationally," Foster wrote.

Council member Karl Nurse, who represents the downtown area, supports the contract extension. He stressed that workers trimmed 10 days off the removal time this year compared with 2011.

The local firm that erects and removes the barriers understands the importance of having them up the least amount of time, Nurse said.

"Every year we meet with them to discuss the issue," he said. "It's about reducing the inconvenience to everybody."

The race promoter, Green Savoree Racing Promotions, also promotes the Toronto race. Workers there take six weeks to set up the track and three weeks to tear it down, according to published reports.

The new $36 million Dalí museum opened in January 2011 and logged 370,000 ticketed visitors, double the attendance the year before in its former location.

Before the 2011 race, the Dalí set a record with more than 3,000 visitors in one day.

But during the Grand Prix weekend in March, attendance dropped from thousands per day to hundreds. Because the museum is inside the race area, patrons also had to buy race tickets to get to the Dalí.

To entice visitors during this year's race, the Dalí extended its hours in the weeks before and after the event and discounted adult admissions by more than 50 percent.

During a workshop last week, some City Council members said they would like the time shortened. But city staffers said workers would be in danger if they worked during the night, and the noise could also anger nearby residents in condo towers and apartment buildings.

Council member Steve Kornell would like the barriers to come down faster. But he said adding that to the contract would be difficult because of possible weather issues.

The museum could pay for an extra shift of workers to help with the removal, Kornell said.

Hine said he is open to that if it solves the problems, adding: "It has to be a solution that is good for everyone."

Still, Kornell said, trying to solve the issue a day before the vote isn't good.

"The city is not going to change the contract," Kornell said Wednesday. "Some people will not like this."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter @markpuente.

Salvador Dalí leaders want St. Petersburg City Council to put brakes on Grand Prix vote 06/20/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 20, 2012 11:12pm]
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