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Mahaffey's fate in question

First, the city banked on a Treasure Island businessman to help finance a renovation of the Mahaffey Theater.

Now the fate of the aging facility is in the hands of the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners. And one commissioner is warning city officials that funding is anything but certain.

"There's no such thing as a slam dunk with the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners," said Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala.

The city wants to use tax money it would otherwise send to the county to help fund the $18-million refurbishment of the Mahaffey and cover the $50-million needed to renovate the Pier. The St. Petersburg City Council is scheduled to vote today to approve about $5-million in city money for work on the exterior of the Mahaffey.

Mayor Rick Baker said the theater would probably be doomed if the county doesn't sign off on the plan. "I really don't know another solution if it's not this one," he said.

But Latvala said she doesn't think the city's plan meets the necessary requirements.

"That money is for areas that are blighted," Latvala said. "I don't think the area qualifies."

The city plans to ask for an extension of its redevelopment financing plan that is set to end in 2012. It is a 30-year plan that began in 1982 and calls for tax increment financing. Under it, any property tax revenue generated above the 1982 rate has gone to redevelopment projects.

It currently totals about $6-million per year. The city plans to ask for a 15-year extension. If the county approves it, the city would issue bonds to get the cash needed and then repay the debt.

State law requires tax increment financing to be used to improve slum or blighted areas.

"It's really important that you use that law for what it's for, and that's to help depressed areas," Latvala said. "And this is not a depressed area."

But the statute's definition of blight is fairly broad, said Mark Woodard, assistant administrator for Pinellas County. An area with traffic congestion can qualify under certain circumstances, he said.

St. Petersburg Development Administrator Rick Mussett said his staff is still working on the proposal for the county. But he said most thriving downtowns generate 20 to 25 percent of a city's tax base. St. Petersburg's generates only 6 percent, Mussett said.

Mussett said he's planning to present the proposal to the City Council by next Thursday. From there, it will be sent to the county. Mussett said he hopes the County Commission will vote on the matter at its March 1 meeting.

The relationship between the city and the county has been tense at times over the past two years. Most recently, council members and commissioners squabbled over whether St. Petersburg should be allowed to preserve a rule that exempts downtown developers from paying for the traffic their projects create. After several weeks of disagreements, both sides finally settled on a compromise.

In November, City Council members approved a plan to renovate the Mahaffey after an initial deal with Treasure Island businessman Bill Edwards fell through. Edwards offered the city an $8-million donation and a $2.35-million loan in exchange for managing the theater and the adjacent waterfront property as a concert venue for five years.

He later withdrew after receiving what he called unfair scrutiny by the St. Petersburg Times.

County Administrator Steve Spratt said it was too early to form an opinion on St. Petersburg's plan.

"The problem is I don't have a specific proposal to react to," he said. "They faxed a schedule of actions they want to take to get the district extended. I have not seen a specific report."

County Commissioners John Morroni and Karen Seel said they were keeping an open mind about the proposal.

City Council Chairman Richard Kriseman said the city won't have many options if the commissioners won't give their approval.

The city could hold a referendum similar to one in September 1999 for Sunken Gardens, where voters approved a one-time tax to buy and preserve the attraction. But that would mean leaving the Mahaffey closed for at least a year, Kriseman said.

"It's a facility that's open to the entire public," he said. "I'm certainly very optimistic the county will see the benefit in helping it."

Carrie Johnson can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or cjohnsonsptimes.com.

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