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Impresario Bill Edwards looks to expand his entertainment empire to the Mahaffey

An entertainment empire is under construction a few miles west of downtown St. Petersburg that could have a big impact on nightlife here for the next few years.

Its main architect is Bill Edwards, a mortgage company executive and entertainment promoter. He helped resurrect Jannus Live and the former Treasure Island Tennis & Yacht Club, and his Big 3 Entertainment is one of the organizations under consideration to manage the city-owned Mahaffey Theater.

Later this year, when the City Council selects a management team to run the Mahaffey, it will help set the course for entertainment in the Sunshine City for the next five years.

The Edwards Group also includes Big 3 Studios, a 7,000-square-foot recording studio at 6090 Central Ave. that has hosted recording sessions with Usher, Hilary Duff, T.I., Diddy, Papa Roach, Mario Winans, Guerilla Black and Cheap Trick, to name a few.

This is not the first time Edwards, who lives on Treasure Island, has made a pitch to manage the Mahaffey. In 2004, he proposed paying the city $8 million and $2.35 million more in a forgivable loan in exchange for the rights to run the theater. He dropped the proposal because he believed he was unfairly portrayed by the Times in articles that scrutinized his business record.

The Edwards Group may seem like the dark horse in the race to land the Mahaffey contract. But the group's recent strides will make for an interesting decision by the City Council.

"I think for anybody to say, 'Oh, no, not Bill Edwards,' is just not thinking clearly," said council member Steve Kornell. "The key is to look at each group's five-year history. That will speak for itself. I think the Mahaffey is a gem and moving forward, we have to be bold."

If the improvements made since September to the former Treasure Island Tennis & Yacht Club are any indication, Edwards has put together a team that could be up for the challenge.

Now called the Club at Treasure Island, the complex has found a way to attract more youthful members while still offering the traditional amenities that appeal to older members.

This is not to say the success at the club would also guarantee success at the Mahaffey. Will it turn into profits, considering that the Mahaffey currently operates at a deficit of more than $900,000?

As managing director of the Edwards Group, Joe Jimenez is responsible for executing the group's vision. He comes with a background of more than 33 years with Caesar's Palace, MGM Foxwoods and the Hilton Group.

He helped put together the 2003 deal that built the stadium at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas and landed Celine Dion and Elton John to perform. He also had a hand in the local club's new partnership with the renowned Gotham Comedy Club of New York, which speaks to the group's potential to have an impact on St. Petersburg's thriving arts community.

"We look at the Mahaffey and downtown St. Petersburg as a destination," said Jimenez. "Our job has been to sell the experience and lifestyle of the destination, not just the 90-minute show."

Jimenez said his goal is to offer a Mahaffey package that would encourage visitors to have dinner before or gelato after a show — all downtown.

"That mile (along the waterfront) lends the Mahaffey to be branded differently," he said. "The question is, 'How do we package the surrounding area?' ''

The other groups in the running are the current management team, SMG, which is owned by the Hyatt Hotel Co. and Aramark Corp., and Ruth Eckerd Hall Inc.

"The Mahaffey needs to have its niche," said Kornell. "What I'd like to see is a WMNF concert series there. They (WMNF) already have a brand and a strong following, and word is they're outgrowing their usual venues."

The council's decision will not be easy. If you're waiting with bated breath, ask yourself this question: When was the last time you went to the Mahaffey or Ruth Eckerd Hall for an event or pounced online to purchase a ticket the second Ticketmaster opened sales for an event at either venue?

Sandra J. Gadsden is assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at sgadsden@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8874.

Impresario Bill Edwards looks to expand his entertainment empire to the Mahaffey 02/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 12, 2011 3:31am]

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