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St. Petersburg council gets update on Mahaffey health

ST. PETERSBURG — Six months after hearing ideas on how to make the Mahaffey Theater more profitable, City Council members are frustrated with the lack of progress.

Council members heard again Thursday from theater managers, the Mahaffey Theater Foundation and the Florida Orchestra, all of whom have a stake in the recently renovated theater on the downtown waterfront.

But they ran out of time before they could discuss ways to bolster the struggling venue.

Since the Mahaffey reopened in 2006 after a $20 million renovation, it has struggled to gain prominence in a tightly competitive market that includes Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.

The city hired AMS Planning & Research last year to look at ways to make the theater more profitable.

AMS concluded that the theater needed to put resources into developing its identity. Most of the discussion Thursday centered on what SMG, the company that manages the theater, has done to promote events.

"I don't think people in this community recognize what it is they have in the Mahaffey," council Chairwoman Leslie Curran said, noting no change in the past six months.

David Rovine, the Mahaffey's general manager, said SMG can advertise only so much because of how the theater is set up as a rental venue.

The acts are largely responsible for their own promotion. SMG complements those efforts to the extent it can, Rovine said. Its advertising budget totals $130,000, with $50,000 set aside by the city and $80,000 from Progress Energy for naming rights to the theater.

"Fifty thousand goes very quickly," he said.

Overall, the city has budgeted $929,000 to support the theater this year, down from a high of about $1.6 million when it first reopened.

Rovine, whose company's contract expires in September, said he felt like things were picking up. Chris Ballestra, director of downtown enterprise facilities for the city, likewise noted that attendance is up.

This season the Mahaffey brought in Jerry Seinfeld for four sold-out performances, which Rovine described as "a major coup." And the Mahaffey has more acts booked for its upcoming season than ever before this early in the year, he said.

The 2010-11 season is slated to include an expanded "Broadway Plus" series, bringing Monty Python's Spamalot, Mannheim Steamroller, Wizard of Oz, Romeo and Juliet and Garrison Keillor.

The council has a few options. Now, performances are booked that fit into four main categories: popular music, Broadway, family entertainment and the Florida Orchestra.

Council members could continue in that direction, with the goal of reaching a wider audience. Or they could spend money to install a kitchen and use the space for more catered events.

AMS suggested establishing the theater as a niche market, differentiating it from its competitors.

Here, the Florida Orchestra would play a larger role. Michael Pastreich, the orchestra's president and CEO, made a pitch Thursday for the council to give the group a permanent home. The council has turned down that idea repeatedly.

Unlike the "Broadway Plus" series the theater offers, the Florida Orchestra represents a chance to build a sense of community, Pastreich said.

"We're here, and we're performing year after year."

Sara Gregory can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or sgregory@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg council gets update on Mahaffey health 05/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 21, 2010 5:57pm]
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