For the past few days, St. Petersburg residents have spotted a plane flying around the city with a banner reading: “Vote no on The Dali Save the Mahaffey Theater!”
The messaging comes just days before the Nov. 8 election, which includes a referendum that would allow The Dalí Museum to move ahead with a planned expansion.
The Dalí is proposing to build upon a 40-foot-wide strip of land connected to the museum on the west side of the building, between the existing structure and the parking lot. Because the museum sits on waterfront property, changes require a public referendum in which voters decide if the museum’s 99-year lease with the city of St. Petersburg can be amended to allow building on that strip.
But as the plane’s messaging indicates, not everyone is in favor of the referendum.
On Tuesday, Bill Edwards, chairperson and CEO of Big3 Entertainment — the company that operates the Mahaffey Theater, which sits adjacent to the museum — held a meeting with arts leaders at the theater for a conversation about the “implications of the Dalí expansion.”
The museum wants to build a 20,000-square-foot addition that will provide space for interactive art experiences and education and community programming. No funding from the city or taxpayers is required for the expansion. In 2019, the museum was approved to receive a capital expense grant for the expansion by the Pinellas County Commission.
The Tampa Bay Times editorial board recommends that residents vote yes on the referendum.
David Downing, former leader of Visit St. Pete Clearwater and member of the Mahaffey’s board, moderated the conversation Tuesday.
Downing asked Edwards for clarification that he was not against the idea of the museum expanding or of the museum receiving funding to expand, to which Edwards replied, “Correct.” Downing was referencing a luncheon held in October by the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership in which Edwards, The Dalí executive director Hank Hine, The Florida Orchestra president and CEO Mark Cantrell and city of St. Petersburg managing director of development Chris Ballestra were panelists. At that luncheon, Edwards expressed concerns about how the museum’s expansion would affect the Mahaffey’s business.
Edwards said that three years ago he was surprised to learn about the museum’s plans to expand because no one from the museum talked to him about it. His chief concerns are how construction would affect parking and traffic flow and whether noise would impact performances. Also of concern is whether the construction would impact the theater’s relationships with The Florida Orchestra, which regularly performs there, and Live Nation, the booking company with whom the theater is in contract.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
In a text message on Wednesday, Amy Miller, president of the Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts, said that Edwards isn’t responsible for the plane and that they are also wondering who is behind it.
On Thursday, the Mahaffey Theater sent an email out to subscribers with “The Mahaffey Theater is in Jeopardy!” in the subject line. The email said, “Save The Mahaffey Theater” across the top followed by ”Vote no to The Dali Museum expansion please help us keep the theater open this project will shut us down vote no.” A “learn more” button underneath the message goes to a website with a 404 error.
In a phone interview on Thursday, Hine said staff from The Dalí Museum weren’t invited to the meeting, but said he has had multiple conversations with Edwards over the years, including one with architect Yann Weymouth, who is working on the expansion.
“We built this current building when we had an operative Mahaffey theater; they had performances,” Hine said. “Bill was not the contractor at that point, so he doesn’t know, but we did things very carefully. And neither the Grand Prix nor the Mahaffey were in any way negatively impacted.”
As far as noise from the construction affecting the theater, Hine pointed out that there has been construction on a luxury condominium across First Street S for the past year and that the loudest thing they have to mitigate is planes taking off and landing at the nearby Albert Whitted Airport.
Hine said he was disappointed by Edwards’ approach of saying he’s for the expansion but against the referendum because without it, the expansion can’t happen.
“I’m really disturbed by it because I think that the public knows that this will be good for the city, it’s going to be good for the arts ... for education ... for just all the wonderful things that an educational, cultural institution advances,” Hine said. “But when they see controversy, I think they want to shy away from it.”