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Baker's latest Big Plan again skirts pesky public debate

Rick Baker is a fine mayor of St. Petersburg. However, there are three sure-fire things you can say every time he announces his next Really Exciting Deal.

First, it has to be a complete surprise. It has to be something he's been cooking up in secret. Nobody else can have any input along the way.

Second, it has to involve a risky or unusual partnership that obligates public property.

Third, there can be no debate. You have to agree with whatever he says. Like, now. Otherwise you're a naysayer. Or worse.

All three of these conditions were met perfectly last week with His Honor's latest surprise: turning over control of the Mahaffey Theater, the city-owned, 2,000-seat performing arts hall on the downtown waterfront.

Here's the deal:

A private businessman named Bill Edwards, who got rich in the mortgage business and now has his own recording studio and record labels, would pay the city $8-million and give it a $2.35-million forgiveable loan _ together, about half the cost of much-needed renovations at Mahaffey.

In return, the city would give Edwards total control of Mahaffey for five years, letting him keep any profits from booking the hall. The city would pay the operating expenses, frozen at their current level, which is $1.47-million this year.

The city also would build Edwards a park across the street, using the public's waterfront just north of Albert Whitted Airport. Edwards would have control of this park for booking frequent outdoor concerts, which he says are an essential part of the deal.

So we get $10-million. We cough up the rest to renovate. We build Edwards a park. We pay his operating expenses. He gets the Mahaffey, the park and the profits, if any.

Like I said, all three of the conditions for a Baker surprise were met perfectly.

Just a month ago, Baker and the City Council were talking about the fate of the 1960s-era theater, and there was not a whisper of this Edwards deal. Instead, Baker was leading the council in public hand-wringing over where to get the dough.

Either he was working on the deal already, and setting up the council like patsies, or else the whole deal was thrown together pell-mell in the past two or three weeks.

The second condition of Baker ideas, risking public assets, also was met. For example: Let's move Florida International Museum, sell off half the site to developers and let St. Petersburg College have the other half!

Or, my personal favorite: Let's tie up the city's small port with a five-year lease with a Glamorous Cruise Ship _ that turns out to be a yellow-and-purple casino!

(When the heck IS that boat gonna sail?)

Thirdly, of course, the City Council has to approve the deal ASAP. The council already has ordered the legal staff to draft the contract.

Come to think of it, there's a fourth Baker-esque twist to this deal as well _ one-upping a neighbor city. Baker hopes the new Mahaffey will lure the Florida Orchestra, which is now housed in Tampa, into new headquarters. Take that!

Certainly, this deal is more attractive than Baker's gambling-ship nonsense. The Mahaffey is desperately in need of repairs, and the city doesn't have the money. Some people even think the best thing is to put the old Mahaffey out of its suffering, joining the neighboring Bayfront Center in demolition.

So this deal _ IF it's legit _ has the virtue of saving the building.

Yet there are a hundred questions the City Council needs to ask. We're talking about turning over control of the most precious thing the taxpayers own, the waterfront.

In the first place, I am too dumb to understand why this does not violate the City Charter, which says any lease of waterfront property requires an election. I am too dumb to understand why granting total control of the property in exchange for money for a fixed, five-year period is not a "lease."

What recourse will the citizens have if they don't like what's happening to their waterfront? Isn't private control of a public park kind of, you know, weird? Does this mean other rich guys might pay the city to "manage" Vinoy Park, Northshore, Lassing?

Does money trump everything else?

A silly question. Sorry.