Arts center falters as focus turns to baseball

Despite a facelift, the Mahaffey Theater is rarely packed and might be dwarfed by a ballpark.

By Cristina Silva, Times Staff Writer
Published March 9, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - At a ribbon cutting for the renovated Mahaffey Theater less than two years ago, city officials boasted of a downtown destined to become a nationally acclaimed arts center.

The Mahaffey would be one of the city's signature institutions, the crown jewel of the Progress Energy Center for the Arts, a sprawling complex that would encompass the Florida Orchestra, a new Salvador Dali Museum and waterfront parks connecting both facilities.

The vibrant attraction would help position St. Petersburg as the cultural center for Florida, Mayor Rick Baker proclaimed.

Now, that vision is seemingly coming apart at the seams.

The Mahaffey is struggling to get people in the door and book competitive acts while other performing arts venues are thriving. Financial constraints forced the orchestra to move its headquarters elsewhere. The grand opening of the Dali Museum, once set for 2008, has been pushed back to 2010.

And uncertainties loom around the arts center.

First, the January sale of the Broadway Across America series has raised doubts about the theater's future. Backers had hoped the series would bring in more popular shows, attracting bigger and more diverse audiences.

Second, a proposed Major League Baseball stadium at Al Lang Field, a long foul ball from the Center for the Arts, has incited debate about the future of downtown as a cultural haven.

City officials acknowledge that the Center for the Arts is taking longer to get off the ground than originally expected.

But they remain confident. Despite setbacks, the renovated Mahaffey - with its modern, three-story glass atrium - has earned rave reviews, even if crowds have yet to flock to the waterfront theater.

"By all accounts, people find it to be an incredible facility," said Baker. "But we are not where we want to be. ... It's going to take some time to build their audience back. We need to work on the programming. We have room to improve in terms of concerts and the Broadway series."

Low attendance

Building an audience doesn't happen overnight, the theater staff says.

"It's not like flipping on a light switch. When you are shut down, it is like out of sight, out of mind," said David Rovine, the theater's general manager. "We are aggressively out there selling the theater. You are always hustling your product and your building."

In June, the Miss Florida Pageant finals attracted an attendance of 1,361 to the 2,000-seat theater; in May, a Def Comedy Jam event drew only 114 people.

In total, about 140,000 people showed up for 216 events during the renovated theater's debut 2006-2007 season.

The Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Tampa drew 585,000 people to 4,375 events last year. Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater had a total audience of 336,275 at 444 events.

The Mahaffey's current season is doing only slightly better. An engagement of the musical Camelot was canceled. The Wedding Singer, the first show of the inaugural season of the theater's Broadway series, opened to a half-full house in October.

"We are still struggling over there. ... We're still trying to find the audience," said Broadway Across America president David Anderson, acknowledging the theater still has issues.

"I'm not sure it's a household name yet."

'Music palace'

Built in 1965, the Mahaffey thrived for about 20 years, drawing people from around Tampa Bay. But its dominance began to slip in the 1980s, when glitzier venues in Tampa and Clearwater gained favor with theatergoers.

The Mahaffey closed for renovation in May 2005. The roof leaked. The sprinkler system was faulty. The theater's foundation was out of money. And with the exception of the Florida Orchestra, the acts weren't drawing crowds.

"You couldn't even tell it was on the waterfront," Baker said.

A lot went into the Mahaffey's $20-million facelift. An extended colonnade facing a grassy expanse was added to the entrance. The ceilings in the lobby were raised for dramatic effect. A sweeping 40-foot glass arc was added to the east side, showcasing the city's waterfront.

The leaking roof was replaced. The theater seats were restored and refinished.

"It feels like a destination," said Michael Pastreich, president of the Florida Orchestra of the new Mahaffey. "It is a music palace. The lobby is grand, it is gorgeous, it has got an incredible view of the bay."

Two views of Rays

All that beauty would be spoiled by a hulking stadium, say some arts supporters who fear a ballpark will deter visitors from visiting the Dali or Mahaffey on game days.

The Tampa Bay Rays hope to build a $450-million stadium at Al Lang Field by 2012.

"I don't think the baseball stadium would help," said Sue Cooper Street, president of the Downtown Arts Association. "It's a different audience, and it doesn't seem like a good fit at all."

The Rays say they are willing to change game times to accommodate performances at the Mahaffey, but that the baseball stadium ultimately would complement the arts center, not hurt it.

"The more stuff there is to do downtown, the more people are going to say, 'Let's go there,' even if they don't have a particular destination in mind," said Michael Kalt, the Rays senior vice president of development.

Baker, who has not taken a public stance on the proposed stadium, said the city is conducting its own parking study to determine how the baseball diamond would fit into downtown.

"We don't want there to be an adverse impact to the Mahaffey. I've specifically asked the staff to look into that," he said.

Anderson, president of Broadway Across America, is all for the Rays' plan.

He points to Broadway Across America's venue in Baltimore, the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, which is near Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where the Orioles play.

"You go there on a game day and you see people streaming down Eutaw Street right by the theater. They see the lit marquee, posters in the windows. It's fantastic advertising and public relations for us. The same thing will happen in St. Pete," he said.

Times staff writer John Fleming contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or 727 893-8846.