Bellingham couple trying to create affordable performing venue


Mark Kuntz

Mark Kuntz is working to turn city-owned commercial space near the Parkade on Commercial Street into an affordable performing arts venue.


My wife and I feel lucky to have landed in such a beautiful community with a vibrant arts scene. We moved, met and married in Bellingham as faculty at WWU in the fine and performing arts, and are thrilled to be raising our boys in a community that embraces soccer on Saturday afternoon and the arts on Saturday night!

We have produced dance and theater in many venues in Bellingham and Whatcom County (including churches and grange halls). Kuntz & Company regularly performs at The Firehouse Performing Arts Center, and I am the producing director at Mount Baker Theatre Rep, having directed 25 productions at Mount Baker Theatre over the past seven years. We have given endless volunteer hours and have reached into our pockets several times in support of fundraising efforts for both organizations. These venues are community gems, and we hope to continue to produce work in both venues.

What the community and performing arts organizations are missing is an affordable mid-sized performing venue that fits those artists and audiences not served by Mount Baker Theatre or The Firehouse or other community spaces.

Two years ago we were encouraged to look at three spaces in the Parkade on Commercial Street (between the Railroad Museum and Gary's). We found over 3,800 square feet of open space owned and leased by the city of Bellingham.

The space meets all of the requirements of a mid-sized venue, (including ample parking) and the location is in the heart of the downtown arts district.

We were thrilled to find a potential home for a wide range of community arts partners, and went to work talking with those partners and with the city of Bellingham to see if such a venue was a possibility. The city council voted 6-0 to approve the idea, and we generated a business plan and roughed out a design for the new space. Long story short (16 months of hard work by a generous core of volunteers), two weeks ago we signed a lease with the city of Bellingham.

The lease is shaped in a way that allows The Commercial Street Theatre Project to have a viable business plan while providing an affordable performing arts venue. When we say affordable, we mean affordable ticket prices and affordable rent. The lease assumes The Commercial Street Theatre Project raises the funds to renovate the space into a state-of-the-art performance venue by March of 2014.

The spirit of the lease, and our proposal to the city, assumes that the community is interested in a new venue and is willing to foot the bill for the construction if the city of Bellingham is willing to support the idea with an affordable lease. The city has met its side of the deal, and now it is our turn to see if the community thinks a new affordable venue downtown is desired.

The total cost of the renovations comes to $638,000, an amount we need to raise by March of 2014. The lease protects city taxpayers with a benchmark of half the cost by Aug. 1, meaning that if we are unable to raise that money by Aug. 1, the lease expires and this venue will not happen. So now is the time when we find out if the community is interested in this idea.

The space is designed to be a multi-purpose space, arranged in a way that meets the needs of dance, theater, music and visual artists. The design takes advantage of the 50 feet of light that pours in from Commercial Street for those events that like an open connection to downtown feel. For those events that want to be performed in a closed space with black out potential, the venue has multiple options with moving panels and draperies to shape the space to fit the acoustic and visual needs of the artists.

The stage floor is sprung, providing the only sprung performance floor in downtown Bellingham. A new venue fully appointed with new lights and sound and acoustic treatment for only $638,000? We are inviting the community to help out now, via a crowd-based fundraising approach through We encourage supporters of the arts to see this as an opportunity to vote for a new space by giving what they can, to show the city of Bellingham that the community is excited about a new venue and its resulting stimulation of the downtown arts core.


Here's the The Commercial Street Theatre Project's pitch on YouTube.


Window On My World is an occasional essay in Monday's Bellingham Herald that allows Whatcom County residents to share their passion for what they do, an idea or cause they support. Send your Window On My World, which must be no more than 700 words, to

Mark Kuntz is on the theater faculty at Western Washington University and is the producing director at Mount Baker Theatre Repertory. For more information about The Commercial Street Theatre Project, go onine to

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