While St. Petersburg voters will ultimately decide the fate of the Dali Museum’s long-debated expansion next month, one key stakeholder remains opposed to the idea.
The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership brought city officials and stakeholders together to discuss the project at its monthly Leadership Luncheon, held Monday at the Hilton Bayfront. Panelists included Dr. Hank Hine, executive director of The Dali; Mark Cantrell president and CEO of Tthe Florida Orchestra; Bill Edwards, chairman and CEO of Big3 Entertainment; and Chris Ballestra, managing director of development for the city.
Big 3 operates the Mahaffey Theater, which is adjacent to the Dali museum, and The Florida Orchestra often performs at the Mahaffey. The Downtown Partnership favors Hine’s significant expansion plans, while Cantrell did not state his preference. Ballestra could not opine on the Nov. 8 ballot referendum, and Edwards believes the proposal will undo 11 years of collaborative work and negate his $10 million investment into the theater.
“The theater is very successful,” said Edwards. “The orchestra became very successful in the theater – as well as other places. Everybody’s doing well, and The Dali wants to blow this all up.”
Event organizers left an informational document at each seat in the Hilton’s conference room, encouraging attendees to support the ballot referendum. It stated the expansion would provide 60,000 additional square feet, interactive art galleries and new educational and community spaces.
The project would not require city or taxpayer funding and, citing an independent study by Data Research Services, Inc., would generate $179 million in annual economic impact.
Cantrell called St. Petersburg the cultural capital of Florida and said the pieces are in place for the city to become a global leader in the arts. However, he added it would take a collaborative effort among the city’s many stakeholders to put the puzzle together.
“And as we go through this process, looking at what his space can be, I think it’s a much broader strategic conversation that needs to happen,” said Cantrell. “How does this fit in with an overall strategy for how we’re going to become the cultural capital of the world?”
While financially sound, Cantrell said his organization is in a tenuous position as one of the few full-time orchestras without a dedicated home. He relayed that The Florida Orchestra enjoys “a fantastic partnership” with the Mahaffey and holds over 50% of its concerts at the theater, but he must make a “viable business decision.”
Having a place to plant the Florida Orchestra’s flag, said Cantrell, is vital to ensure his business remains profitable and continues operating in St. Pete.
Hine called using the space to increase The Dali’s footprint “phase one” of expanding the St. Petersburg Center for the Arts – a name Ballestra said city planners adopted for the site decades ago. Hine said the project would provide a permanent home to The Florida Orchestra, include “a beautiful and visible entry” for the Mahaffey Theater and, “someday,” additional parking.
The additional space, explained Hine, will build on the success of the museum’s Van Gogh Alive exhibit and offer more immersive, interactive experiences. He called that exhibit a “trial run” and said it sold out from the time it opened in November 2020 until its conclusion in June 2021.
He added that The Dali also needs more room for the 14,000 students that annually visit the museum, and believes the additions will help serve a broader demographic.
“We are an educational institution,” said Hine. “We use art to inspire people to find new solutions to their everyday challenges.”
Hine said the expansion would encompass a 40-foot wide, 170-foot long strip of city-owned property known as Lot 6. As the area is zoned as waterfront property, the City of St. Petersburg must amend its agreement with The Dali just 11 years into a 99-year renewable lease.
Edwards’ organization maintains Lot 6, which serves as an access point for the Mahaffey’s parking garage.
“The arts are the shortest distance between one person and another person,” said Hine. “They allow us to communicate beyond words.
“I think that Chris (Ballestra) would agree that we’ve all been scrupulous in approaching this expansion, making sure that no one is negatively impacted and that it’s a total win for all elements.”
However, Ballestra could not confirm or deny that statement, and Edwards asserted his disagreement. Additionally, representatives of other museums and art galleries voiced their concerns over being left out of something called a St. Petersburg Center for the Arts during a brief question-and-answer forum.
Jason Mathis, president and CEO of the Partnership, credited Edwards for his contributions to St. Petersburg’s renaissance over the last decade. Edwards called his work with the Mahaffey and support of The Florida Orchestra and The Dali “a labor of love.”
He said his organization devotes 26 Saturdays a year – the biggest night in entertainment, he added – to the Florida Orchestra. He called the Mahaffey the orchestra’s home, a state-of-the-art place it could rehearse and perform.
In addition to his contributions to the surrounding entities, Edwards also noted he is under various contracts with the city and booking behemoth Live Nation. He believes Hine is now undoing years of collaborative work to pursue more space and negatively impact the Mahaffey.
“Because they need land,” he said. “And this is the only way they can take the land.”
The expansion, opined Edwards, would have adverse effects on people entering and leaving the Mahaffey, which he said is now a smooth operation. He also implied that a slowdown in patronage at The Dali was behind Hine’s expansion push.
Edwards said Plan A would significantly impede parking and traffic flow. He added that the Mahaffey lots are also utilized by the Tampa Bay Rowdies and other organizations. Edwards provided illustrations of the expansion’s Plan B, which he called “a big concrete jungle.”
“This conversation should have probably happened about three years ago when Dr. Hine got the money to expand,” said Edwards. “We should have had the conversations amongst ourselves. We’re having them now at the last minute when it’s time to vote.”
At the luncheon’s conclusion, Cantrell expressed that various stakeholders need to have further, in-depth conversations. He said the proposal significantly impacts people across the city and noted several other areas in St. Petersburg are also undergoing redevelopment.
Cantrell said the conversation could not focus on specific entities and a true “Center for the Arts” should include the entire city.
“It has to be about ‘we’ or ‘us’ and how we are going to grow this together,” he said. “How we are going to interact together.”
St. Petersburg voters will have the final say on whether the city amends its 99-year lease agreement with the Dali Museum during the Nov. 8 elections.