The St. Petersburg City Council chose cold cash over broader ambitions Thursday by voting to begin negotiations with a local music promoter to run the Mahaffey Theater. Big 3 Entertainment pledges to turn the waterfront jewel into a rental hall and assume most of the financial risk. That may satisfy fiscal conservatives and downtown businesses that lobbied on Big 3's behalf, but it suggests a lack of vision by Mayor Bill Foster and the council to redefine the Mahaffey as a regional cultural arts center with broad, community-based support. Now the city staff should nail down Big 3's financial promises and its pledges to work well with the Florida Orchestra and the neighboring Dalí Museum.
Big 3 outmaneuvered Ruth Eckerd Hall Inc., the nonprofit that operates a venue by the same name in Clearwater that has drawn national accolades. Ruth Eckerd's more intriguing and enlightened bid envisioned a decadeslong relationship where the venues would build a substantial regional arts organization with deep community programming and financial support, including a sizeable Mahaffey endowment. But Ruth Eckerd officials failed to offer enough specifics to overcome council members' predictable parochial fears that the Mahaffey would take a back seat to the Clearwater venue. And Bill Edwards, the mortgage executive and entertainment promoter associated with Big 3, appeared to have played heavily on that fear. For all of the pinched talk about the need to protect St. Petersburg and the Mahaffey, it sounded at times as though Ruth Eckerd officials were New York outsiders seeking a hostile takeover instead of operators of a popular nonprofit in the same county.
By selecting a company controlled by Edwards, Foster and the City Council displayed a short memory about what happened the last time Edwards bid to control the Mahaffey. A 2004 deal negotiated in secret by Edwards and then-Mayor Rick Baker unraveled amid questions about his mortgage business, his aggressive prodevelopment politics in his hometown of Treasure Island and a conviction in Greece on misdemeanor charges of shipping marijuana through the mail (the following year an appeals court tossed out the conviction). As City Council chairman, Foster voiced concerns about Edwards' offer, declaring, "We're not going to sell our souls at expense of the public good.'' As mayor, he apparently has had a change of heart.
On Thursday, council members hailed Edwards as a successful businessman they trust to make the Mahaffey work — all but ignoring Ruth Eckerd's considerable credentials. Only council member Karl Nurse, the single no vote, seemed to fully appreciate the potential of the Ruth Eckerd partnership and the downside of a rental-hall model.
Now the challenge for city staff is to negotiate a contract that ensures Edwards delivers, and that should include working with the Florida Orchestra and the Dalí Museum. Edwards also should prepare for more public accountability. He may not enjoy public scrutiny, but he just signed up to be in the center stage spotlight.