For decades, the Mahaffey Theater has been an underutilized jewel on St. Petersburg's waterfront — an elegant destination visited by too few and subsidized too much by city taxpayers. Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council should alter that equation as they weigh the three bidders seeking to run the facility formally named the Progress Energy Center for the Arts. There is at least one financially safe choice, but there is also a more ambitious one that holds more potential. St. Petersburg has a chance to redefine the Mahaffey as a key regional cultural arts facility embedded in the city's arts scene. Only one bidder, Ruth Eckerd Hall Inc., has the demonstrated ability to cultivate that vision.
Under current manager SMG, the Mahaffey has been run as a rental house with performances dependant on outside producers. It hasn't worked particularly well, costing the city this year more than $800,000 in subsidies. Too few programs are offered, the relationship with the Florida Orchestra is sometimes strained and there is no vision for the theater as a community asset. SMG, an international management firm, claims it can cut the city subsidy by more than half if it's rehired, but it has not made a compelling case that the future will be much different than the past five undistinguished years.
The financially appealing plan is offered by Big 3 Entertainment, a nationally known firm associated with mortgage company executive and entertainment promoter Bill Edwards, who tried once before to win the right to manage the Mahaffey. Big 3 promises to substantially reduce the city's annual subsidy and would guarantee between 15 and 25 concerts produced by its sister company, Bill Edwards Presents Inc., at no financial risk to the city. While Big 3 promises to work with the Florida Orchestra, it's clear the overall plan is geared more toward profitmaking productions than arts programming.
A far more interesting idea is coming from Clearwater, where the nonprofit Ruth Eckerd Hall Inc. has been extremely successful in running a city-owned venue by the same name that has roughly the same number of seats as the Mahaffey's 2,031. Ruth Eckerd's bid envisions replicating some of the group's success in Clearwater on St. Petersburg's waterfront by offering diverse programming from the orchestra and educational programming to local artists as well as blockbuster shows. It would transform the Mahaffey into a highly utilized facility underwritten partially by private fundraising while still receiving considerable public subsidies.
In Clearwater that has meant a $19 million annual budget, with the city chipping in just $420,000. By comparison, the Mahaffey's 2010 operating budget of approximately $3.5 million included a city of St. Petersburg subsidy of more than $900,000. Ruth Eckerd envisions more than doubling Mahaffey's annual budget in the next five years but would increase the annual subsidy to $1.1 million, with a plan that as revenues increase over time they would be split with the city.
There are legitimate concerns Ruth Eckerd will need to address, such as ensuring the Mahaffey's programming does not suffer at the expense of its Clearwater cousin. President and CEO Robert Freedman has committed to putting more St. Petersburg residents on Ruth Eckerd's board of directors. (In full disclosure, the chief financial officer of the St. Petersburg Times, Jana Jones, sits on the Ruth Eckerd board.) Freedman hopes to build a regional performing arts organization around the two venues. The mayor and the City Council should also insist on some assurances that money raised in St. Petersburg will benefit the local community.
It's notable that the Mahaffey's anchor tenant, the Florida Orchestra, already has a long-standing, strong relationship with Ruth Eckerd. The nonprofit model and community commitment that Ruth Eckerd offers may be more expensive in the short term, but it holds the greatest promise in the long term for transforming the Mahaffey into a vibrant facility with a steady, broad range of events that would attract more residents and visitors to the downtown waterfront.