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Dome, Bayfront Center manager quits

The company that manages the Florida Suncoast Dome and Bayfront Center quit Thursday, saying St. Petersburg officials and residents have lost faith in its abilities to lure big-name acts and stay within a budget.

Russ Cline and Associates of Kansas City, Mo., the firm that since 1987 held contracts to run the two facilities, will depart as soon as possible. The decision leaves operation and promotion of the facilities to city employees, at least for now, St. Petersburg officials said.

Company head Russ Cline had planned to ask the City Council on Thursday for an additional $500,000 subsidy to meet expenses at the facilities. He shocked some council members when he announced his departure instead.

"There's a point when your support base erodes, it's not in the best interests of your staff to continue to fight the battle," Cline told council members. "You have to have the confidence of the council, of the community."

In 1992, Cline signed a four-year contract in which the city agreed to pay his company $125,000 a year to manage the Dome and $125,000 a year to handle Bayfront Center. Among the contract's provisions, the city could have canceled the agreement in 1994, and Cline knew he would lose management of the Dome if a baseball team arrived.

City Council unanimously accepted Cline's request to end the contract early.

Council members praised Cline for his work.

"I think it was in the best interest of Russ Cline and also the city of St. Petersburg and the Dome," Council Chairman Robert Stewart said late Thursday. "There was an increasing level of frustration that was building on both sides."

The Dome has not hosted a concert this year. Bayfront Center has done worse than expected. A boat show was canceled, and only one Broadway-type show has appeared there since the fiscal year started in October.

City officials did not tell Cline to quit, Stewart said. "I would have hoped it wouldn't come to that," Stewart said.

Cline said he wants to hand over his job as soon as possible, no later than the end of September. Cline, former promotions director of the Kansas City Chiefs whose consulting companies promote facilities around the United States, promised a smooth transition.

The city, meanwhile, is determining how it will handle the job.

"There's no fixed plan," said Community Development Administrator Rick Mussett. "The mayor will have to review this and, in all likelihood, we will assume management at least for the near term."

Robert Leighton, the city's downtown facilities director, has a background in stadium management and promotion, Mussett said. Leighton may assume Cline's role as promoter.

How long the city will run the buildings remains to be seen.

Tampa businessman Vince Naimoli already has been promised a chance to manage the Dome if Major League Baseball or professional basketball comes here.

Forty-four employees of Bayfront Center and the Dome will not lose their jobs, officials said.