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A mortgage man, a music man, too

Bill Edwards walked into his office complex on Central Avenue Tuesday afternoon, rushing to get ready for a flight to Washington and a business trip for his multibillion-dollar mortgage company.

But the chairman and chief executive officer of Mortgage Investors Corporation still had time for a quick detour into a room equipped with a million-dollar mixing board and recording gear easily found in New York or Los Angeles studios.

"You know, I really think we should add a little harmony to the chorus, don't you think?" Edwards mused about a newly cut album for his Big3 Entertainment record label.

Welcome to the two worlds of the man offering to revive the Mahaffey Theater and create a new home for the Florida Orchestra _ swirling with mortgages and music, refinance and refrains.

One thing seems clear: Edwards' money is now music to the ears of the city of St. Petersburg. This week, he told City Council members that he would pay more than half of the $19.4-million renovation costs for the ailing Mahaffey, in exchange for exclusive management rights for five years and profits from the theater and outdoor concert venue.

Edwards has a burgeoning national independent record label _ which includes distribution by EMI Worldwide, a branch office in Manhattan, ownership of a share of country megastar Toby Keith's song catalog and an artist roster with classic acts Cheap Trick and Rick Derringer, popster Rachel Farris and a hip-hopper breaking into radio rotation named Lil Eddie, produced by Mario Winans.

He has recorded pro wrestling star Randy "Macho Man" Savage doing rap, brought in famed rock producer Jack Douglas (Aerosmith and John Lennon) and revamped a miniature golf course on Treasure Island.

Why would he want to lend a hand to the performing arts?

"Because you have to maintain the arts," said Edwards, 59. "I can't imagine life without the arts. It's impossible to fathom that you wouldn't have opera, you wouldn't have ballet, wouldn't have the orchestras that are all part of our culture."

Besides, Edwards has plenty of money to spend on things he deems worthwhile. In 1994, he took over Mortgage Investors Corp., which handles refinancing to veterans and FHA homeowners nationwide, and oversaw sales of $55-million that year to "$3.8-billion four years later."

By 1998, Edwards and several of his associates had money enough to retire. They sold the company and Edwards, a native of Detroit, soon pursued his long-held passion for music.

He had played guitar growing up. While serving in Vietnam as a Marine, he was wounded in combat _ "I was shot in both legs," he said. So he honed his guitar skills while recuperating for a year and a half in a military hospital.

"There was nothing to do," he said. "So I grabbed a guitar and started playing and I got a lot better at it, and decided to try to make it in entertainment business. Fortunately, my funds ran out before my talent came on. So I went and did other things."

Edwards knocked around in rock bands, but eventually went into marketing, then mortgages. But he never lost his love of music, and in 1999 formed Big3 with several partners including Jeffrey Crilley, another former mortgage man.

They followed the blueprint of teen-pop moguls Lou Pearlman and Johnny Wright, who were behind top pop acts such as the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and Britney Spears. In fact, Edwards hired a handful of producers and choreographers from the booming Pearlman and Wright machines and found some chart success with the girl-group MPress.

But Big3 moved away from teen pop, as the trend faded, and is now involved with an array of genres. Edwards also is excited about a massive concert rehearsal hall he has built in Largo for major acts to polish their concerts before taking them on tour (Hall & Oates and Michael McDonald have used it). Hilary Duff and Usher have both recorded recently at the studio on Central Avenue.

Edwards says Big3 intends to branch into film production as well. He can certainly afford it. He has many real estate holdings in the area. Then there's Mortgage Investors Corp., which Edwards repurchased in 2000.

A resident of Treasure Island, Edwards moved to the area about 10 years ago when he took over the company. He posted sales of more than $7-billion in 2003 and projects sales of $12-billion in 2004.

Edwards also is known for his generosity. He underwrote the performance of ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Mahaffey in 2003. He donated $125,000 to help renovate the Royal Theater, a venue for a Boys and Girls Club on 22nd Street S. He wrote a check for $25,000 for an ailing area musician to set up a medical trust fund. His Edwards Family Foundation hands out presents to needy children from St. Petersburg each Christmas.

In addition, Big3 project manager Johnny Green says Edwards has formed a committee to stage a benefit concert for Florida hurricane victims, tentatively scheduled Nov. 20 in Vinoy Park. It will benefit the American Red Cross and the Florida Hurricane Relief Fund, featuring national recording artists to be announced soon. He also plans a Florida Orchestra concert May 28 on Treasure Island's beach, commemorating the city's 50th anniversary.

"You get to a point in life where you've succeeded beyond your wildest dreams," Edwards said. "And I've succeeded in everything I've set my mind to do. I thank God for that. In return, I figure that's why I'm here. I'm here to help other folks."

Mahaffey cost estimates

All reconstruction estimates are preliminary and subject to design and bid process:

Arena demolition, site cleanup $1,737,000

Theater base renovation 7,687,000

Theater enhancement 4,400,000

Lots 51 and E demolition, 2,000,000

Albert Whitted Park development

Bayshore realignment 188,000

(approx. 300 linear feet at $625/ft.)

Park expansion 441,000

(approx. 65,000 sq. ft.)

New outdoor stage+ 500,000

Waterfront plaza, covered walkway 1,250,000

Parking garage elevator 200,000

Contingency 1,000,000

Total $19,403,000

+Costs in excess of $500,000 will be funded by private sector.

Other potentional improvements

Garage addition (300 spaces at $10,000/space) $3,000,000

Source: Mahaffey Theater Project Update, City Council workshop