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St. Petersburg asked to triple orchestra aid

Otherwise, costs of a temporary relocation will leave it in poor shape for its Mahaffey return, its leader says.

By MELANIE AVE
Published May 12, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - The Florida Orchestra will make an urgent plea today to the city for $221,000 - nearly three times its current funding - saying its future financial health hinges on the financing.

Orchestra executive director Leonard Stone said the extra money is needed because the orchestra must temporarily relocate some of next season's concerts to Pasadena Community Church while the Mahaffey Theater is being renovated. The city-owned theater will reopen in March and will someday become home to the orchestra's administrative offices.

Without the money, Stone said, the orchestra will return to the Mahaffey crippled.

"You will consider other worthy and competing claims, but the case for the orchestra's claim is directly tied to its future ability to participate in the rebirth of the Mahaffey Theater complex," James Gillespie, vice chairman of the orchestra's board, wrote in a May 6 e-mail to council members.

But the request could be a difficult one for the City Council's three-member budget committee, which meets at 8 a.m. today at City Hall. The committee also has to weigh requests from at least 10 other agencies, who want a piece of the $797,000 available for fiscal year 2006, which starts Oct. 1.

The orchestra is competing with the Festival of States, which wants $100,000; the Pier Aquarium, which wants $92,000; and the Tennis Foundation of St. Petersburg, which wants $60,000.

In fiscal 2005, the city doled out $806,570 to 13 outside agencies, including $75,000 to the orchestra. The new orchestra request is the largest for the city's "nondepartmental funding," representing about 28 percent of the available money.

"That's a big request," said council member Bill Foster, budget committee member. "I do not want the orchestra to be crippled while we're enhancing their venue. Whether we can come up with the whole enchilada I don't know."

Committee chairman James Bennett said he wants to help the orchestra without hurting other agencies. "There's not a whole lot of money," he said. "If we give the Florida Orchestra the whole thing, then somebody else would probably suffer."

During the Mahaffey's closure, the orchestra will play more than half of its 2005-06 season at Pasadena Community Church. Stone said the endeavor will cost about $70,000, because the orchestra must build a stage for more than five months of rehearsals and performances that would normally be at the Mahaffey, one of three concert halls the orchestra uses.

The orchestra also plays at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Tampa.

Stone said he also expects attendance to drop by 15 percent, reducing income by $106,000, because some people are reluctant to attend concerts at unfamiliar locations. Another $20,000 is needed to publicize the new venue.

"We want to return to the Mahaffey healthy," Stone said. "We don't want to return in a negative situation."

If for some reason the renovations are not complete and the orchestra can't use the Mahaffey at all next year, orchestra officials have asked the city to agree to an additional $80,000, for lost ticket sales and extra costs.

Council member Earnest Williams said he supports giving the orchestra more money, viewing it as a one-time expense. "If we're in a position to help them out, I'm not really opposed to that," he said. "But I wouldn't want to see it happen every year."

The Florida Orchestra, whose season begins in October, has a budget of $8-million that comes from municipalities, corporate sponsorship, contributions and ticket revenue. This year it received $400,000 from the city of Tampa and $30,000 from Clearwater.

Stone said the orchestra has not requested more money from the other cities for 2006. "We don't have extra circumstances facing us in those two cities as we do in St. Petersburg," he said. "The increased funding is really due to the one-time extra circumstances that the closing of the Mahaffey imposes."

For its entire 37-year history, the Florida Orchestra essentially has been homeless, renting office space and shuttling from hall to hall around the Tampa Bay area. Originally, the orchestra's peripatetic schedule was billed as an advantage, seen not only as a way to establish markets in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater but also to "unite the bay," as early promotional literature put it.

But in recent years, the lack of a permanent base has hurt the orchestra, giving it little leverage in the halls it rents.

Stone said the orchestra wants to build offices at the Mahaffey and relocate there soon, but it must secure funding for that before a relocation from a West Shore office complex in Tampa is possible.

The Mahaffey always has been the area's least-used venue, and the orchestra has consistently been its best draw, with popular concert series on Thursday mornings and Saturday nights.

The council's budget committee will hear formal presentations from eight agencies today. It will hear the remaining requests on May 26, when it will make recommendations to the full City Council. Once agency funding is approved, it becomes a part of the city's overall budget.

Times staff writer John Fleming contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 892-2273 or melanie@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 12, 2005, 00:30:14]


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