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Managing public facilities

To understand why St. Petersburg needed to change the management of its two premier public entertainment halls, one need not blame Russ Cline and Associates for the facilities' poor performance. One need only listen to City Council chairman Robert Stewart, who said, two days before Cline stepped down, that: "I'm frustrated in dealing with the management firm and its litany of reasons and excuses for not performing. It's very frustrating, and it's expensive to taxpayers and the city."

What Stewart wanted, and the public demands, is direct accountability. Allowing a private company to run a public facility doesn't always provide that.

Cline's departure presents Mayor David Fischer with an opportunity to define his own administrative approach. Will Fischer take responsibility himself, or does he want to parcel it out to a private manager?

Private management companies can indeed bring national expertise and connections with the entertainment industry, as did Cline, but the record is mixed. In St. Petersburg itself, private management of the Florida Suncoast Dome and the Bayfront Center has been less than inspiring. The Dome has not attracted a single major concert in the past 11 months, and the Bayfront Center _ even after a $25-million remake _ has attracted sparse bookings.

At least in the interim, city administrators say they are going to take over the job. That's a sensible approach. The city needs time to sort out the lessons from its contract with Cline. It also needs to keep its options open for management of the Dome in case the city lands a baseball team.

As he examines the long-term options, Fischer should remember that public management of public facilities gives him _ and the public _ more direct control. If Stewart is concerned about marketing, for example, the mayor can quickly move to institute new strategies. If the council needs answers about the subsidies, the mayor will be able to answer directly and forthrightly.

Fischer and the council clearly will want to entertain offers from other dome managers, but there is just as clearly no rush. Public management will keep the city's options open for baseball _ or for future management relationships that are truly promising. And Robert Leighton, the city administrator who will take over responsibility for the Dome and Bayfront Center, makes a compelling point:

"With no concerts this year at the Dome, I don't see how it could get any worse," says Leighton, who has promoted and managed facilities in Long Island, N.Y., and Orlando. "We'll set goals to do better and work as hard as we can to reach them."

That's a worthy start, and one on which Fischer and the public can build.

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