It had been described as a jewel that just needed polishing.
During the first half of last year, the Mahaffey Theater sat nearly dormant along the waterfront. It offered just a smattering of shows while its new neighbor, the Salvador Dalí Museum, basked in glory as international dignitaries celebrated its grand opening.
But things changed quickly.
By late August the keys to the Mahaffey were handed over to Big3 Entertainment, an outfit with lofty goals of fewer dark nights and more VIP and after-party experiences.
Few would argue that in a few short months, Big3 has changed the dynamics for a demographic weary of driving to Clearwater and Tampa for certain concerts.
Marc Anthony, the O'Jays and a disco queens New Year's Eve bash may put butts in seats, but the cultural venue needs more financial support from the community.
"Typically, for an organization the size of the Mahaffey, 30 percent of the community's support must come from donations," said Lara Garner Shane, president of the Mahaffey Theater Foundation.
"It takes much more than ticket sales to sustain a strong performing arts program,'' she said. "Long-term success at the Mahaffey is dependent on creating a member-funded, community-led performing arts center."
Big3 Entertainment wants to build the endowment so the theater can offer programs that provide greater outreach to local schools.
"It's kind of like the chicken-and-egg kind of thing," said Scott J. Schecter, president of Big3 Entertainment Group. "The foundation needs members so that we can bring more programs.
"If people take a leap of faith by supporting the foundation, it will be a good thing for everybody — education, dance and world music."
The Mahaffey Foundation is reorganizing and building the endowment. The board, which once had more than 50 trustees, now has about 15, with a goal of adding three in a few weeks, Shane said.
In 2009, the foundation had a paltry $260,000 in total assets. The 2010 figures were so low, the cultural center didn't have to file an IRS form typically required of nonprofits.
Those numbers pale in comparison to Ruth Eckerd Hall's foundation, which posted nearly $33 million in total assets in 2010. In Sarasota, the Van Wezel Foundation's total assets were about $2.5 million.
So there's work to be done. Schecter points to the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach as the model Big3 would like to emulate. In 2010, the Kravis Center's total assets were nearly $124 million.
The problem goes back years. In 1998, the Mahaffey Foundation spent virtually its entire endowment of about $1 million to cover losses after an ill-conceived Broadway series built around the musical Big.
Since taking the reins, some would argue that Big3 has improved the lineup: Roberta Flack, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Creedence Clearwater Revisited and Lorna Luft.
What is needed now is for the community to rally around these improvements by investing in memberships, which will facilitate more programming, Shane said.
The foundation has an uphill battle in getting the business community to buy in — especially since so much of that support has been invested in a long-term relationship with Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Is it fair to expect the same kind of community support that venues like the Museum of Fine Arts and the Holocaust and Dalí museums receive?
While corporate sponsorships tend to be difficult to come by in a shaky economy, some of Mahaffey's sponsors have been cutting back since the late 1990s.
"We have to create a long-term sustainable model for the Mahaffey," Shane said. "The way to make that happen is to create a structure that will attract people who want to get involved.
"We're trying to create unique opportunities that you can't get anywhere else. Many other venues focus on butts in seats and go home, but we're trying to focus on the night-out experience.''
The Mahaffey has created a program for both individual and corporate members that allows ticket buying before the general public, a private ticketing line, access to a donor lounge, private parking and other benefits.
Some memberships start at $100 per year.
Shane sums it up best: "We can't survive without community support."
Sandra J. Gadsden is assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 893-8874.