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Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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Despite big acts, Mahaffey Theater still operating at a loss

ST. PETERSBURG — Diana Ross and the Pet Shop Boys are just two of the big-name acts that have played the Mahaffey Theater this year.

Upcoming gigs include Chris Isaak and evergreen crooner Tony Bennett.

But the city-owned venue in downtown St. Petersburg is likely to need the crutch of a taxpayer subsidy for the foreseeable future, concerning some St. Petersburg City Council members.

In the upcoming year, the theater is projected to need $632,000 from the city to cover its operating deficit. That is roughly the same as this year and ends a trend of falling subsidies that began when local developer Bill Edwards’ management company Big 3 Entertainment won a contract to oversee the theater in 2011.

The expected shortfall is despite the theater exceeding attendance targets and bringing in more events, city officials said, adding that, like libraries, performing arts theaters require subsidies to operate.

“This is probably the lower end of what they can do expense wise,” said Clay Smith, assistant director of the Downtown Enterprise Facilities department.

Taxpayers were funding the Mahaffey more than $1 million per year in 2011 when Edwards won a bid to manage the theater. He put in more $1 million of his own money to renovate the theater’s interior adding big TV screens and furnishings, and giving the VIP area a makeover.

But some City Council members are worried that impetus has been lost.

“He had a burst of activity but I don’t’ think he has been able to increase it as time has gone on,” said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse.

Another concern is whether Edwards’ plan to eliminate service fees on ticket prices is generating enough in extra ticket sales to offset the loss in revenue. A portion of the fee went to the city. Lowering ticket costs was intended to enable the theater to be more competitive with the Straz Center in Tampa and Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.

Future Straz Center offerings include Broadway shows, including The Book of Mormon and Evita, and a concert by Michael Feinstein. Ruth Eckerd Hall just held a concert featuring original Beach Boy Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck.

Both of those theaters benefit from having large endowment funds that enable them to invest in attracting bigger acts and productions, Smith said.

By comparison, money raised by the Mahaffey Foundation funds Class Acts, an arts education program for students.

“We haven’t been able to contribute anything of a tangible size other than contributions to the education program,” Smith said.

That could be set to change. Earlier this year, Edwards formed the Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts to raise money for the theater.

If the foundation is successful that could mean a partnership with the city to promote shows, Smith said.

“We really need $1 million and beyond to start purchasing shows and increasing programming,” he said. “We can’t take a risk with taxpayer’s money — we have to have an endowment.”

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