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Subsidy props up an aging venue

City officials seek ways to curb the waterfront complex's rising dependence on St. Petersburg taxpayers.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- In the 1970s, both Neil Diamond and the Bayfront Center arena along St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront were in their heyday.

Both are now well past their prime.

Even Diamond passes up the Bayfront Center these days when he wants to give a concert in the Tampa Bay area. Last time he toured, he played the much larger and newer Ice Palace in Tampa.

And there are a host of other venues he might have chosen over the Bayfront Center, such as Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Tampa.

With the exception of half the local performances each year of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (the other half are at the Ice Palace), the 36-year-old Times Arena at Bayfront Center is able to draw only minor-league events such as the St. Petersburg Boat Show, Jehovah's Witnesses conventions and high school graduations.

St. Petersburg taxpayers own the Bayfront Center complex, which includes the arena, the smaller and more formal Mahaffey Theater used for plays and Florida Orchestra concerts, and the Sun Pavilion meeting and banquet hall.

The complex is projected to lose $1.3-million this year and next to continue a string of gradually rising deficits its managers have depended upon taxpayers to cover. Including this year's projection, taxpayers will have spent $11.6-million since 1990 covering the center's losses.

"Those subsidies seem to increase every year -- has the facility outlived its usefulness?" City Council Chairman Larry Williams said sternly at a recent workshop on the city budget.

"That's a very interesting judgment call," downtown facilities manager Mike Barber said about the comment later. "It depends on what you expect from the building. If you expect it to be the Ice Palace and bring in the top names, then it has. But its activity level has shifted from the number of high-profile events to more community events."

Community events are not moneymakers.

The Mahaffey Theater Foundation has struggled to bring in crowds and to rebuild its endowment, which it drained in 1997 and 1998 to cover heavy losses, but the theater has hosted nearly twice as many events as the arena in the past 21/2 years.

Barber says it is unrealistic to think the Bayfront Center can draw big enough events or sell enough extra tickets to reduce the taxpayer subsidy any time soon.

"I'm not sure we're ever going to get those facilities' subsidies any lower," agreed his boss, City Administrator Tish Elston.

Williams, who plans to run for mayor next year, insists things cannot stay this way.

Maybe the complex should be marketed better, renovated or partially or completely torn down, Williams says. Something besides a money-loser could be built on its 15 acres of prime, waterfront land that the property appraiser says is worth $16-million.

"My intent is to get this conversation going and get somebody to start to rack their brains," Williams said Monday. "If I had to vote this Thursday on the budget on the subsidies, I'd tell them that I'd vote for it this year. But there is no sugar daddy next year unless they have a plan in place. There's a long-term vision missing."

The bank of doors into the Bayfront Center is split in half, with a different sign over each side. One leads to the 5,600-seat arena, and the other leads into 2,000-seat Mahaffey Theater.

The contrast between the halves of the building is remarkable.

The side that contains the Mahaffey is well-appointed and elegant, resembling a classic Broadway theater. There are ornate railings with stained-glass light fixtures. There are sonorous acoustics, plush carpet and box seats.

The adjacent Sun Pavilion meeting hall is much like a hotel ballroom, suitable for banquets or conferences. Its large, plate-glass windows look out on yachts moored in Tampa Bay.

All this luxury is due mostly to the $26-million renovation the city funded in 1988, which included a new parking deck out front and comfortable offices for the city's managers and the Mahaffey Theater Foundation, a group of influential St. Petersburg residents who lobby for and financially support the arts in the city.

The arena, across the common lobby, resembles a super-size high school gymnasium with its dingy paint, solid steel doors and gray concrete. It seems barely to have been touched since being built in 1964. The same view of the bay lies outside its walls, but there are no windows.

"They spent most of the (renovation) money on the other side," operations manager Jeff Foreman acknowledged while giving a tour one day recently. "This side needs some work."

Mayor David Fischer says that may be true.

"The theater is fine," he said. "But it's the arena that used to be the revenue producer. Now I think we have pretty much an obsolete arena we're going to have to do something with. The deficit is too great for what it's doing right now."

But Fischer isn't sure whether the arena should be torn down, renovated or just marketed differently.

"We're going to be (studying) that this next year," he said.

Foreman and Barber said there has been frequent talk about building an outdoor concert amphitheater somewhere around Tampa Bay, but no project ever took hold.

The arena site would be far too small for such a project, said Jack Boyle, chairman and chief executive officer of SFX Music Group, a promoter that operates 42 such amphitheaters around the country. But in his decades as a concert promoter, Boyle has become familiar with the Bayfront Center.

"It's one of the most beautiful views in that area," Boyle said, thinking of what could be built on the site if the arena were torn down. "You might want to make it an entertainment area with nightclubs and restaurants."

That might tie the Mahaffey Theater more closely to downtown and raise people's awareness of it.

Among the arena's most successful events are Watchtower Conventions for Jehovah's Witnesses and the St. Petersburg Boat Show, which moors boats at temporary docks in the basin behind the arena.

Council member Jay Lasita said there should be some way to reposition the complex for more small convention business.

"There is benefit that comes back from it," Lasita said. "Collateral spending is a boon for economic development."

Foreman and Barber said they are trying to market the facility to small conventions.

Williams says it's time for action.

"I believe it's time for us to step up and come up with some fresh ideas," he said. "Are those things going to make money or are they not? It's time to make some decisions. We're too far along to say that we're going to tear this down and build something else this year. But it sure as hell should be on the blocks next year."

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