Mount Baker Theatre seeking feedback on shared arts facilities


A few years ago, Bellingham made headlines as having more "artists per capita" than any other city in the U.S. besides Santa Fe. Wow! As executive director of Mount Baker Theatre since 1997, I've seen dramatic growth across our entire performing arts community during that period of time.

Mount Baker Theatre currently provides three different performance venues for this vast and growing network of local performing artists. Part of our mission is to support performing arts produced by local community organizations. Mount Baker Theatre's board of directors considers this such a high priority that it recently agreed to open the Encore Room to local not-for-profit performing arts organizations for free. These organizations can now use this space for meetings and performances without rental or labor charges.

Over the past 18 years, Mount Baker Theatre's facilities have gone through several dramatic renovations; these include re-acquiring many of the condo spaces on the south and west side of the theatre and renovating these spaces into the Walton Theatre, the Encore Room, and additional support facilities. Every system in the theatre has been renovated or added, including electrical, fire, security, heating and air conditioning, among others. The lobby, tower and main stage interior have all been restored and new restrooms were added in the main lobby. These renovations to a city-owned facility were possible because Mount Baker Theatre received more than $15 million in non-city funding over the same period.

These renovations were originally conceived in the theatre's regularly modified long-range strategic plan, which includes a list of long-range capital facility projects. These projects are based in part on the needs of the local community as expressed to us by organizations currently renting space at Mount Baker Theatre for their productions. Since 2010, board and staff have continued to move forward toward those long-range goals with planning and research.

Recently, we expanded the discussion to the greater community to be sure that we were also taking into consideration the wishes of those who might not currently be using our facilities. More than 900 regional arts and performance organizations, nonprofits, media, churches, school performance instructors, Mount Baker Theatre renters and clubs were invited to respond. Invitations were extended to participate in an online survey, as well as to attend a meeting on Oct. 23.

So far, the initial results of these inquiries seem to be confirming a need for two different size venues, one with 150-350 seats and another with a capacity of 500-750 seats. We have received recommendations regarding how these performance spaces might best be designed to serve multiple-sized productions, provide a more cost-effective location for rehearsals, support locally produced theater, mid-sized public gatherings, community dance, opera, children's theater, chamber orchestra, youth orchestra, performance contests, and collaborative activities with Western Washington University and other performing arts entities.

Additionally, there seems to be a need for set and costume construction space and storage facilities, as well as banquet facilities with kitchen and catering capabilities. Respondents also expressed their needs for meeting rooms, banquet rooms and rehearsal space, and recommendations so far have been that those can be easily achieved with a multi-purpose room that could be divided into smaller spaces as needed. Various types of performing artists also expressed their specific needs, and everyone generally agreed that everything needs to be as affordable as possible.

There seems to be a consensus that there would be significant advantages to developing these facilities in or near the cultural district. Those responding so far have expressed enthusiasm for this kind of collaboration among all the performing arts organizations and felt that having additional spaces to support their organizations will be significant and beneficial.

The survey is still open, and we welcome additional responses:

This ongoing exercise will be very beneficial to the board's future planning efforts. Mount Baker Theatre already attracts well over 100,000 patrons annually and is regionally recognized for its programming. If these additional facilities become a reality, Bellingham could become nationally known as one of the best places in the Northwest to enjoy performing arts of all kinds.


Brad Burdick is executive director of Mount Baker Theatre in Bellingham.

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