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Proposal would mean money for Mahaffey

A month ago, city officials fretted about finding enough money to renovate the tired, leaky Mahaffey Theater.

On Monday, City Council members heard wealthy St. Petersburg businessman William Edwards offer to pay more than half of the $19.4-million renovation costs. His reward: exclusive management rights to the Mahaffey for five years and all the money the waterfront theater and an associated outdoor concert venue produce.

"I'll be thrilled if we break even. If we make a profit, I'll be more than thrilled," said Edwards, whose company helped bring Mikhail Baryshnikov to the Mahaffey two years ago.

Council members, while generally positive, expressed some reservations about Edwards' plan.

"Once you sign an agreement like that, you give up control. Do we give him carte blanche, or do we retain some control?" asked council chairman Bill Foster.

But Mayor Rick Baker, who introduced Edwards at an informal workshop Monday, said such a privately generated financial boost would make Mahaffey "the finest performing arts theater in the state."

The council, which has the final say, asked the city's legal staff to draft a five-year agreement with Edwards and deliver it within four to six weeks. If approved, the project could start next spring with November 2005 as a tentative reopening date.

There is no sale involved, which under the city charter would require a public referendum, so residents won't get to vote on the proposal. Nor is a lease at issue, which also can trigger a vote.

Baker also said Monday that the Florida Orchestra might relocate its headquarters from Tampa to the Mahaffey. He said the orchestra's board voted last week to make the move, which will be contingent on the success of a fund drive.

Edwards, a resident of Treasure Island for more than a decade, is CEO of the St. Petersburg-based Mortgage Investors Corp., a mortgage lender specializing in government loans. Edwards also owns recording and entertainment companies, including Big 3 Entertainment of St. Petersburg.

He said his business expertise and entertainment contacts can raise the theater's visibility and bring in Broadway shows, ballet and music. High-quality performing arts would be a priority, he said.

While he is confident of making a profit, Edwards said he is more interested in establishing a venue equal to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and Ruth Eckerd Hall. Edwards has been associated with the Mahaffey Foundation, a theater support group, for several years. Last year, he donated $125,000 toward renovation of the Royal Theater, a Boys and Girls Club on 22nd Street S.

Specifically, Edwards is offering the city:

+ An $8-million, nonrefundable payment to the city.

+ A $2.35-million, no-interest loan that would be forgiven if the city approves a second five-year agreement when the first runs out.

+ A freeze on its annual Mahaffey operating costs, based on the $1.47-million projected for fiscal year 2006.

Part of Edwards' proposal includes the city-financed development of a public park to be used for concerts. It would be created on a parking lot known as Lot 51, next to Albert Whitted Airport.

Developing the park would require a stage and, to accommodate the Grand Prix course, realignment of Bayshore Drive. That work is considered part of the $19.4-million renovation and would result in a park about the size of Vinoy Park, officials say.

Council member John Bryan expressed concern that weekly concerts, which Edwards said he envisions, could turn the park into an event venue rather than green space for the public.

Bryan also predicted a parking crunch and wondered about the compatibility of the different venues planned, including the theater, the airport, an outdoors concert and the possible relocation of the Dali Museum on the old Bayfront Center site.

"It's going to be a real difficult thing to make all that work," Bryan said.

The renovated Mahaffey would remain close to its current 1,996-seat capacity. Consultant drawings show an outside with lots of glass and a curvy design. Other features include a waterfront plaza facing the South Basin, a theater entry on the south, and a covered, column-decorated walkway connecting the theater, its plaza and a parking garage.

In return for turning over the theater's management and revenue, city officials hope to get an enhanced destination that will contribute to downtown's new energy.

One of the options was to tear down the theater along with the Times Arena at Bayfront Center, whose demolition is scheduled to start in about two weeks. The arena tear-down makes it imperative for officials to make a quick decision on the Mahaffey's future.

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