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$1 million state grant jump-starts plans for Mahaffey concert shell

From a visual standpoint, the Mahaffey Theater is a palace for staging musical performances, Florida Orchestra President Michael Pastreich says.

“I think the goal is acoustically for it to become the musical palace, as well,” he said.

The theater now is moving closer to that goal with a $1 million state grant to purchase an orchestra shell that will improve the experience for the audience, as well as for orchestra members, Pastreich said.

The St. Petersburg Cty Council accepted the state cultural facilities grant on Thursday, the first step toward financing the project. The city will add another $850,000 toward construction, expected in 2017.

“St. Petersburg is defining itself as a cultural city,” Pastreich said, and will have the top acoustical venue in the area.

The Florida Orchestra performs about 100 concerts a year, many divided among the Mahaffey, the Straz Center in Tampa and Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.

The $1.8 million project is the first of three phases that will total about $4.3 million. Efforts are under way to raise the other $2.5 million, Pastreich said.

The current orchestra shell was purchased in 1985 when the Mahaffey was turned into a concert hall, he said, simply making it a workable space.

“This time around, we’re talking about turning it into a great space,” he said. “We’re raising it to a higher standard.”

He hopes to have all of the work done at one time because the theater will have to be closed during construction.

The new orchestra shell will reach farther into the theater seating area and over the top of more of the audience, he said, creating “a whole new magnitude of quality.”

“The audience will be much more in the same room as the music,” he said. “The sound will envelope you more, there will be more resonance so when a note is played it will stay longer. And sound will continue to grow as it leaves stage.”

It will benefit the musicians, too, he said.

“A challenge the orchestra has currently is hearing each other on stage,” Pastreich said.

In addition, the modern shell will take up less floor space when it is stored.

The orchestra shell is one of many improvements at the theater in recent years.

Last year, a $970,000 kitchen upgrade was begun with a $500,000 grant from state Division of Cultural Affairs. The expansion will allow the theater to fill a gap in its service to people who come for weddings, banquets, concerts, plays and other events – and also to serve the entertainers and their parties.

The center hosts 20 to 25 weddings and another 15 to 20 catered events a year, along with 50 to 75 backstage spreads for touring acts that appear there.

The Mahaffey is owned by the city but is operated by the management company of business Bill Edwards, Big3 Entertainment, under a five-year contract with the city that began in September 2011. Edwards has spent more than $2 million on repairs and improvements to the theater and the city spent about $1.4 million on upgrades in 2011.

Edwards also has management control of Al Lang Stadium, home to his Tampa Bay Rowdies professional soccer team, in a four-year deal with the city. Edwards has made more than $1.5 million in renovations and repairs to the long-time baseball venue.

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