ST. PETERSBURG - Keeping the Mahaffey Theater open will be an expensive proposition.
City officials estimate it will cost almost $8-million just to maintain the 1,996-seat theater. And that doesn't include the cost of rebuilding a wall after the demolition of the Mahaffey's next-door neighbor, the Times Arena at Bayfront Center.
City Council members said Tuesday they would do whatever it takes to preserve the European-style theater.
"I think there would be a huge outcry from this community if we were to lose the Mahaffey Theater," said council member Virginia Littrell.
The council met for two hours in a special session to discuss the future of the Mahaffey and the Bayfront Center.
Demolition of the arena, which city officials originally hoped to complete this year, is now expected sometime in 2005.
After the aging structure is demolished, the city will turn its attention to the Mahaffey in hopes of making it more competitive with other performing arts venues such as Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
Mike Connors, the city's engineer, said demolition will be timed to minimize disruption to the theater. The two structures currently share a wall, which must be rebuilt after the arena is torn down.
Right now, the biggest concern is keeping the Mahaffey's roof from leaking.
The theater needs a number of repairs, said David Bennett, a senior consultant for Art Resources International, which studied the building at the request of the city.
The electrical and air-conditioning systems must be fixed. The roof also needs replacing, and there are serious problems with groundwater intrusion.
The consultants found little desire to increase the size of the Mahaffey after interviewing city officials, members of the arts community and theater patrons. However, they did recommend that the city explore ways to make space inside the theater more flexible.
For example, St. Petersburg lacks a good 300- to 500-seat venue. If the Mahaffey could be reconfigured for such occasions, it could draw smaller performances, such as recitals or chamber music programs.
The consultants also found gaps in the theater's management. Compared to other performing arts centers, it has almost no fundraising or marketing staff.
The Mahaffey Theater Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs the theater, has struggled financially for years. In 1997-98, the foundation gambled on a very expensive Broadway series and lost more than $850,000.
As of today, the foundation's endowment is nonexistent, according to the consultant's report. The theater foundation should hire experienced employees to focus on marketing and fundraising if it wants to survive, the report recommended.
Carol Edgerley, the foundation's executive director, said the report didn't contain any surprises. The foundation rebounded a bit in 2003-04, with more than $700,000 in ticket sales, she said. Last year's annual gala raised more than $40,000, and the organization ended the year with a balanced budget.
"This was a real turnaround season for us," Edgerley said. "And it sounds like it's going to get even better in the future."