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Many hands make art deal work

Published January 20, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - The elaborate arts reshuffling announced Thursday was orchestrated by a group of the city's most powerful men whose interests uniquely intersected.

They trumpet the collaboration as a way to bring stability to three performing arts institutions: the Florida Orchestra, the Palladium Theater and American Stage.

But the partnership of Mayor Rick Baker, business leaders and St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler also would provide personal victories.

Kuttler would be able to add the historic Palladium to an expanding portfolio of property that stretches across Pinellas County.

Don Shea, as chairman of American Stage, would secure a new facility for the theater. As director of the city's downtown partnership, he would free up the old theater site for a new development, such as a hotel.

Jeff Lyash, acting as chairman of the orchestra's operations committee, would have helped identify office space and a rehearsal facility for the 80-member group. Acting as Progress Energy Florida chief executive, Lyash would have created new neighbors for his new downtown headquarters in the orchestra and American Stage.

And Baker, who has marketed the city as a thriving arts hub, would be able to highlight even more progress.

The players, who certainly are not strangers to each other, somehow navigated a deal worth $25-million with several moving parts in a matter of weeks. It's a speed governments typically don't see.

"Who you're working with is a very big component of it," Baker said Friday, still jubilant over the news. He joked that the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be moving to St. Petersburg next.

"When you're working with Don Shea, or Jeff Lyash or Carl Kuttler, you know what you're getting. You know they'll deliver," Baker said. "There's just a different confidence level than if it was someone for the first time."

Orchestra and college boards must still approve the changes, the final pieces in what Baker calls a "multilevel jigsaw puzzle."

As part of the agreement, the college will operate the Palladium with an endowment fund created by a $3-million donation from benefactor William R. Hough and his wife, Hazel, and a $2-million state matching grant.

Millions of other dollars are being transferred between American Stage, the college and the city to make the deal work for everyone.

"Everyone recognizes the value of each other for this community," said Lyash, who toured the potential office space for the orchestra Friday afternoon. "We're all better off if we're working together, and integrated in this community."

Changes needed

For the orchestra, the new plan represents the biggest change and the largest shock. Though Lyash and orchestra board chairman James Gillespie knew about the discussions for weeks, orchestra staffers were informed just days ago.

At the top of their concerns is the Palladium Theater itself, a venue never created with an 80-piece orchestra in mind. Under the current arrangement, the orchestra would use the Palladium for rehearsals when the larger Mahaffey Theater is booked. They currently practice in several locations, mostly in Tampa.

Money is available to increase the size of the stage and perhaps add more storage space, but the acoustics of the 880-seat hall are just as important, Gillespie said.

A private sound technician is expected to tour the facility next week. The orchestra also must sign off on new office space it would rent in a college building downtown. The cost to build new office spaces next to the Mahaffey was $1-million over budget.

"It's all new," said orchestra executive director Leonard Stone. "Two months ago, we were at the Mahaffey. Now we're here."

Stone was reluctant to elaborate. "I have to be careful," he said. "Careful. And smart."

Plans for property

While American Stage would move into a theater that the college would build across from Williams Park, the old theater at 211 Third St. S would be sold to a group of St. Petersburg developers.

Jeff Wells and Ken Heretick of Vector Realty said the future of the site is still being discussed. One option is a hotel, Wells said Friday.

Heretick and Wells already own the nearby Central Garage at 334 Second Ave. S. The sites, Wells said, could be combined into a larger development. A firm plan won't be ready for months, and American Stage will likely remain until its 2007 season ends.

[Last modified January 20, 2007, 00:43:52]

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