From showplace to no place
By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Twenty years ago, the Bayfront Center arena booked top-tier rock bands that drew fans from all around Tampa Bay.
By the early '90s, just a few top artists played there, like Metallica and Tom Petty and Pearl Jam. Now, except for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and a few Disney ice shows, the center draws strictly community events and minor league acts.
What happened to the 5,000-seat, 37-year-old arena? How did a place that was once the county's premier entertainment venue fall so far it may soon disappear?
The answers, in short: general neglect -- and overwhelming competition.
The University of South Florida built the Sun Dome in north Tampa, twice as big. St. Petersburg built a domed stadium right down the street, nine times as big. In 1996, Tampa opened its new Ice Palace, more than three times the size of the Bayfront. It is promoters' new favorite place for concerts.
"The world outgrew us," said James T. Lang, a member of the auditorium board that got the Bayfront Center built in the early 1960s.
The cylinder-shaped hall officially known as the Times Arena at Bayfront shares the site with the 2,000-seat Mahaffey Theater. A public-private fundraising effort in the 1980s renovated the theater at a cost of $26-million and spawned a community foundation to support it. But that effort neglected the arena, which now leaks, smells musty and looks outdated.
As the arena's popularity slid, the City Council kept propping it up with taxpayers' money. The city's annual subsidy for the Bayfront has topped $1-million since 1990.
Council members have occasionally talked about the issue in recent years. They agree that the renovated Mahaffey still has value, with the symphony concerts and plays it brings, but members believe the arena is an embarrassment.
Yet each time, they have left the hard decision for later -- most recently on Thursday, when the council's inaction killed a November referendum that would have replaced the arena with a conference center run by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
All the options are expensive. It would cost nearly $1.9-million to properly waterproof the arena, and maybe $500,000 to tear it down. The council recently authorized a quarter-million-dollar patch job.
It would take $18-million to $20-million to renovate the arena, but it would still be the smallest in the area, Bayfront manager Mike Barber says. At that cost, council members wonder if the city could put a more useful building in its place.
Civic pride got the center built in the early 1960s.
"We wanted things to bring people to St. Petersburg -- to put St. Petersburg on the map," said Charles Cheezem, who with Lang was on the Auditorium Authority. Cheezem now develops real estate in Clemson, S.C.
For 20 years, it worked. Not only did the center's 2,000-seat theater and 5,000-seat arena bring people for concerts and shows, Cheezem says, but "people came from cities all over to look at the Bayfront Center and compare it to projects they were doing."
But the Mahaffey's dominance began to slip in the 1980s. Ruth Eckerd Hall opened in Clearwater in 1983, and Tampa began building its Performing Arts Center. Both threatened to outclass the Bayfront's plain, boxy theater.
But the members of the advisory council cared mainly about the small theater and the classical music and plays that they liked to watch there. In fact, the arena was often an annoyance because the two halls shared a lobby.
Wrestling matches in the arena made money, but the theater crowd hated mingling with sweaty men in tank tops in the lobby.
The renovation split the lobby, and the Mahaffey got the makeover.
A new conference center in place of the arena could house many of the events that now fill the Bayfront Center's days, Barber said.
"I'd hate to see them tear it down, but on the other hand, all those types of facilities have their lifespan, and maybe this is it," Cheezem said.
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