Thursday, November 23, 2017
Stage

With a five-year extension, Bill Edwards' company looks to expand Mahaffey programming

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ST. PETERSBURG — As the Mahaffey Theater refines its identity in Tampa Bay's performing arts landscape, mortgage magnate Bill Edwards will continue to run the show.

In a new five-year contract with the city of St. Petersburg, Edwards' Big3 Entertainment will book the acts for the city-owned theater. The deal gives Edwards more autonomy over operations — for instance, the ability to sell naming rights for rooms within the theater.

As part of the contract effective Oct. 1, the city will no longer cover the difference between operating expenses and revenues. Instead, the city will pay a flat management fee to Edwards' company in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $300,000, said Clay D. Smith, who directs the city's downtown enterprise facilities department.

Edwards took over the struggling venue in 2011, upgraded the theater and brought in bigger and better acts. Edwards said in a statement he looks forward to an "exciting new era at the Mahaffey."

The change reflects Big3's improved revenues since taking over the 51-year-old venue. At the outset, the city was paying Big3 more than $1 million to cover the gap. In recent years, Clay D. Smith said, Big3 has cut that gap in half, to a record low closer to $500,000.

"The city is very happy to have extended them another five years," he said.

The new deal is not free of concerns. Its competing venues, Ruth Eckerd Hall and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, are better established and have cemented strong ties with agents.

"They are not going to steal Broadway away from the Straz," Clay D. Smith said of the Mahaffey. "That's not going to happen. They are not going to (take) pop (music) from Ruth Eckerd."

The ambiguity is reflected in the venue's programming choices. While the Straz Center brings in Tony-winning Broadway shows and Ruth Eckerd offers mostly mainstream popular music stars, the Mahaffey seems to struggle for a niche.

There have been highlights. Neo-soul singer Jill Scott, who had the No. 1 album in the country when she stopped in St. Petersburg, sold out her show in 2015 and is booked again for September. Three Jerry Seinfeld performances sold out in 2015. The Mahaffey has been a longtime host to the Florida Orchestra, along with the Straz and Ruth Eckerd.

And the Mahaffey has made some competitive moves. In 2015 the theater hosted Santana, who had played at Ruth Eckerd the year before. The show sold out.

But the theater is still mostly known for a scattershot roster. Other acts over the last two years range from Frank Sinatra Jr. (who died suddenly before his appearance) to a Michael Jackson tribute, Alvin and the Chipmunks and the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra.

Last October, the Mahaffey booked a heavy metal musical created by the family of Richard Heene, father of "Balloon Boy" Falcon Heene, which sold fewer than 400 tickets.

Mahaffey programmers, Clay D. Smith said, are "still trying to figure out who they are." In the new contract, the city has added bonuses for booking acts highly rated by Pollstar, a concert industry trade publication, as proven ticket sellers.

Big3 is banking on Amy Smith, Big3's new vice president of programming and marketing, to usher in a new era for the Mahaffey and Al Lang Stadium, the other city-owned property the company manages.

Her hiring was announced July 5. She directed programing and marketing at the Bethel Woods Center for the Performing Arts in Bethel, N.Y. Under her leadership, the 15,000-seat nonprofit (located at the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival) experienced its first year without losing money and saw a 30 percent increase in first-time visitors. Before Bethel Woods, she served as director of client strategy for a Manhattan-based advertising agency.

She expects to further diversify programming at both the Mahaffey and Al Lang, which hosted rapper Flo Rida following the Tampa Bay Rowdies season opener. The Mahaffey will target particular niches as well as millennials.

"From singer-songwriters to soul, you want to attract people to St. Petersburg," she said. "There's a lot of cultural programming that can be done, (targeting) genres and countries."

An appetite among millennials for festivals could enhance the entertainment scene downtown, she said, adding that it's important to create good experiences for performers, their agents and staffs.

"When they say, 'We can't wait to be back here,' and they truly mean it, that is just as important as it is coming from the customer."

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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