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Mayor's Mahaffey plan piques some skepticism

New questions were raised Tuesday about the details of Mayor Rick Baker's proposal to turn over management of the Mahaffey Theater to a private businessman who would spend millions on renovations.

Most of the concerns involved a proposed outdoor concert venue that would be across the street from the Mahaffey. Some worried about the impact of large crowds. Others questioned whether there would be enough parking.

"I don't want to be dazzled with the dollar," City Council member Virginia Littrell said. "I want to be sure there is full access for all the residents of St. Petersburg."

William Edwards, owner of mortgage lending, recording and entertainment companies, would pay $10.35-million to help cover the $19.4-million cost of renovating the Mahaffey. In return, he would manage the facility for five years and keep all of the revenue from the theater and a new outdoor concert venue.

While $8-million would be nonrefundable, Edwards would forgive a $2.35-million no-interest loan if the city approved a second five-year agreement after the first one runs out.

Baker said other companies might get involved in such a project but few would spend so much up front.

"I'm fairly confident none of them would give me $10-million to do this," he said.

The City Council still needs to approve Baker's plan, and then the Salvador Dali Museum and the Florida Orchestra might move in on either side of the theater.

But some questioned the wisdom of offering outdoor concerts to between 15,000 and 22,000 people in a new 7-acre waterfront park. The park would be built where a parking lot adjacent to Albert Whitted Airport now sits.

Edwards, 59, said Tuesday that the concert venue would be key to his plan to make the Mahaffey Theater successful. He suggested he would hold 20 to 25 concerts a year there.

But John Claude Bodziak, the owner of Jannus Landing, questioned whether the city should allow Edwards to control the performances. Jannus Landing is a smaller outdoor venue for concerts.

"I don't think the city should be giving a private individual control of what will essentially be a public park," Bodziak said. "It's like, if I gave the city $5-million, could I win the exclusive right to book events at Vinoy Park?"

Airport supporters seemed surprised by the potential size of the concerts.

An airport task force recently recommended the lot be used for concerts, "but they're talking a lot larger crowds," said Ed Montanari, chairman of the task force and an American Airlines pilot. "I'm not exactly sure that's what we envisioned when we wanted to put concert facilities out there."

Some said an outdoor concert venue might not work next to an airport.

"It doesn't bother me, but I'm not sure it makes sense," said Tim Clemmons, an architect and one of the leaders of Citizens for a New Waterfront Park, the group that failed to win voter approval of a plan to replace Albert Whitted Airport with 60 acres of green space. "Do I want to go to a concert where every 10 minutes a plane is going in and out and I can't hear the beginning and end of my favorite song?"

City Council member John Bryan wondered if there would be enough parking for a downtown entertainment area that could include the Mahaffey, the outdoor concert venue, the Salvador Dali Museum and the Florida Orchestra. He and some other council members worried the concert venue might conflict with the Dali Museum.

"When you have a hard rock concert going on for three days over the weekend, what happens to the other entities?" he said. "I'm not opposed to any of it, but questions there need to be answered. The last thing I want to do is run the Dali out of there."

Officials at the Salvador Dali Museum hope to build a new facility on the site that would give them more exhibition space and better protection from storm threats than their current waterfront building.

"We haven't had a chance to review that plan, but the idea of a park around the site has always been critical to our plan for the Dali Museum," said Hank Hine, the museum's director.

Baker's proposal includes a 10,000 square foot administrative wing for the Florida Orchestra that would connect to the south facade of the Mahaffey. Leonard Stone, the orchestra's executive director, sees it as an appealing idea but speculative at this point.

"There's no time line for this to happen," Stone said. "We have not identified funding that could make it happen. We're not under any pressure to make it happen. But if it happens, it will be a great, positive thing."

The Mahaffey Theater Foundation would welcome Edwards in his new role. He was a foundation member and has donated $196,750 to the Mahaffey over the years.

The foundation, which for 15 years has booked the events that have gone into the theater, would see its role change.

Carol Edgerley, the foundation's executive director, said it likely would continue to book educational and community events, leaving the larger acts to Edwards.

"We've had a mission for 15 years and we would continue that mission," she said. "It would just be on a different scale."

Edwards said he would continue to offer the space to nonprofit groups, but he would also try to make it a profitable enterprise.

"Because basically at the end of the day, whether this thing works out or not," he said, "I'm giving up $10-million of my money."

Times staff writers Lennie Bennett, John Fleming and Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.

Mahaffey Theater reconstruction

In a little more than a year at a cost of $19.5-million, based on city estimates, the Mahaffey Theater and the area around it could look radically different. The theater would have a tall curving glassed-in entrance, and a pavilion would protect people as they walk from the garage. also, a parking lot would become a park and outdoor concert venue.

Concept plan

Parking would become a park and the layout of the Bayfront Center complex would change.

LEGEND

A. Mahaffey Theater

B. Parking garage

C. Plaza, covered walkway

D. Possible home of Dali Museum

E. The Florida Orchestra offices

F. Outdoor stage area

G. Airport control center

H. Airport terminal

I. Airport runway, race course

J. Albert Whitted Park

Source: Mahaffey Theater Project Update, City Council workshop

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