The Dali Museum has proposed its own 400-space garage and a 20,000-square-foot building that would include a virtual reality exhibit, an event space and a restaurant.
But changes to the waterfront campus means St. Petersburg City Hall must get involved, and if City Council approves, voters could have a referendum on their Nov. 2 ballot. It could also mean that the Performing Arts District, home to the Dali and the Mahaffey Theater, could have a revamped entrance with more curb appeal.
The city is refereeing the complicated plan, as the Dali, the Mahaffey and the Firestone Grand Prix must all be on board. Bill Edwards, CEO of Big3 Entertainment which runs the Mahaffey, however, isn’t a fan of how the Dali is proceeding with the project.
Chris Ballestra, the city’s managing director of development, presented renderings and the city’s options to the City Council on Thursday. It’s a plan, he said, that is almost two years in the making.
Ballestra said the Dali received $17.5 million from the Pinellas County Tourism Development Council in 2019 to pay toward its expansion, estimated to cost $38.7 million. The plan that the Dali proposed to the city, he explained, was not feasible, because it could not accommodate the Grand Prix’s needs. It would place dual garages too close to the waterfront and couldn’t incorporate the Grand Prix within the ground floor of the proposed garage.
So the city conducted a separate Mahaffey Theater garage and parking study as well as a Center for the Arts site study and came up with its own plan, presented as Plan B. That would involve potential for future meeting space as part of a new, consolidated garage with public facing retail along First Street, expanded view corridors to the waterfront and room for the Dali, Mahaffey and Grand Prix to grow. It may call for a referendum.
The Dali says Plan B will take too much time (about two to three years) as their funds from the Tourism Development Council have a timetable. So the Dali countered with an alternative, presented as Plan C. That plan gives the Dali 40,000 square feet of exhibit space with virtual reality and artificial intelligence displays and would expand the museum westward by developing a skinny strip of land controlled by the city.
Development of that plot would trigger a referendum. The Grand Prix has conditionally agreed to consider Plan C as long as there is no development, operating or financial impact to the race. A spokesman for the Grand Prix did not return requests for comment.
The council will discuss the project Thursday and will hold a vote Aug. 12.
The peaceful coexistence of those attractions gives a financial advantage to the city. Ballestra said the Dali brings in about 400,000 visitors a year, the Mahaffey brings in 250,000 and the Grand Prix draws 150,000 in just one weekend.
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Council member Gina Driscoll said she would like to see letters from Big3 Entertainment, the Grand Prix, Florida Orchestra and downtown neighborhood and park associations with their input.
“These are all stakeholders in this with real implications for each of these organizations,” she said. “We need to hear from them along with the Dali Museum. I hope the Dali Museum is having conversations with each of those groups.”
Reached by phone, Edwards of Big3 Entertainment said he was shown renderings of the Dali’s proposal just two days ago. He also said he was worried about how the traffic and parking would affect the Mahaffey. A five-year renewal agreement for Big3 Entertainment will come before Council on Aug. 19.
“It’s just kind of being awful fast and under the radar and being pushed down our throats and I’m very disappointed,” Edwards said.
As for a new entrance to the Performing Arts District, Edwards said he’s been asking for that since 2018. “And it basically fell on deaf ears,” he said.
“I’m just trying to slow this down a bit,” he said. “As long as we’re all in agreement. Two days is not enough time for us to feel comfortable with what they’re trying to get accomplished.”
In a statement, Dali executive director Hank Hine said the museum continues to work with its neighbors and partners to seek feedback on their plans.
“The Dali has engaged in conversations with several community leaders since the grant application process began in 2018. The city’s interest in invigorating our area as a cultural hub is important to both Big3 Entertainment and The Dali, and we have a shared interest to achieve that goal with the city’s help.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated attendance figures for the Dali Museum, the Mahaffey Theater and the Firestone Grand Prix.