ST. PETERSBURG — It's one of the biggest decisions the City Council will make this year: picking a manager for the Mahaffey Theater, which has struggled to remain competitive with similarly-sized venues like Ruth Eckerd Hall and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
On the eve of the council picking one of three bidders — Ruth Eckerd Hall Inc., Big 3 Entertainment and the Mahaffey's current operators, SMG — Mayor Bill Foster weighed in.
Foster released a memo announcing that he favors Big 3 Entertainment, which is owned by Bill Edwards, a mortgage company executive who proposed managing the theater in 2004 before aborting his bid after unwanted press attention. He retracted his $10 million bid after it was revealed he was convicted on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge in Greece. His conviction was later thrown out on appeal, and Edwards later donated $2 million for theater renovations.
Foster said Big 3's ability to reduce the city's $900,000 annual subsidy of the venue, to provide quality programing and to limit the nights the theater isn't used make it the better choice.
"Big 3 Entertainment has put together an impressive management staff that will leverage sister company resources to expand programming and simultaneously reduce risk at the theater, something critical in this economic environment," Foster wrote.
Until Wednesday's memo, Foster wasn't saying who he was going to recommend. Last week, he said he was waiting for assurances that the Florida Orchestra, which calls the Mahaffey home, will get the dates it needs.
City Council member Karl Nurse said that Foster's predecessor, Rick Baker, would have weighed in sooner.
"Baker would have told us three months ago who he would have favored and then tried to convince us to go in that direction," Nurse said.
Instead, Foster's staff wrote a four-page summary of the bids, which are all quite different, and made no recommendation. Council members said last week that although they are scheduled to vote today, they have so many questions that they might to delay the vote to April 21.
Today's meeting begins at 8:30 a.m., but the theater will be discussed at the end of the meeting.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.