Private donations sought for new arts district

Downtown Bellingham is finding a new identity as its budding Arts District comes together.

Using the Mount Baker Theatre and the new Art and Children’s Museum as anchors, the district will give downtown Bellingham a thriving center for art and culture.

Because the city and the county have created the Bellingham-Whatcom Public Facilities District similar to the one used to build Safeco Field, the area can do it without any new taxes.

The Public Facilities District, formed in 2002 and run by a seven-member board, recieves a rebate of 33 cents for every $1,000 of sales tax collected by Bellingham and Whatcom County and is expected to provide about $17 million over 25 years, depending on sales.


But it still wasn’t enough to see the arts district through.

The project needed to raise $8.6 million: $4 million for an endowment fund to keep the museum and theater running and $4 million for capital costs, with the rest built in for campaign expenses, says Ken Culver, president of the board of Campaign for the Arts. It was going to need donors, big ones, so the Campaign for the Arts was formed to find them.

The campaign is a private group, made up of citizens and people involved with the museum and theater, that works with the Public Facilities District as well as the city to coordinate funding. The campaign also works with the nonprofit organization Whatcom Community Foundation, which will hold the endowed funds. The campaign sought larger donations to start and has raised more than $4.7 million so far.

“And that’s very important for people to understand,” Culver says. “A big, successful campaign like this is usually not successful if you go out and announce that you have to raise the first dollar. It signals to prospective donors that others have gone before me.”

After receiving initial donations — the largest of which was $1 million — the campaign has opened the floor for public donations of any size.

“It’s official, and now for the first time we’re sort of going public with this, in the sense of telling people there’s an active campaign and asking for donations,” Culver says. “But the campaign has been quietly going on in the background for the last few years.”

In addition to donors, the campaign is working to get grants and has already received a $1 million Building for the Arts grant from the state.

“We have a number of grant applications in process,” he says. “I’m hopeful we’ll get some of the money from grants. If we had a couple more of those we’d be really great, and we’re working on that. It’s been pleasing to me to find there are people with means who believe in this.”


Mount Baker Theatre has already utilized $4.4 million in public facility district funding to expand its dressing rooms and build the Studio Theatre. That 2004 renovation allowed the theater to bring in larger, higher quality productions that would have been impossible to accommodate before, such as the recent showing of “The Producers.”

“We did Broadway musicals before the renovation, but we would do things like put all the equipment in the alley and put tarps on it and hope it didn’t rain,” says Brad Burdick, executive director of Mount Baker Theatre. “We used an empty truck as a dressing room for ‘Showboat.’ We had to have stagehands with umbrellas to keep (the actors) from getting wet.”

The changes have had a positive effect on the theater in both the shows and the audiences it draws.

“Ten years ago, we had about 85 events a year and 65,000 people attending,” Burdick says. “This year we had over 300 events and 104,000 people attended. It’s a dramatic increase.”

Phase II of the theater’s renovation will take place in March as the theater closes to allow builders to update wiring, heating and air conditioning in the 80-year-old building. The budget for this project is about $6 million, and Burdick says it wouldn’t have been possible without the public facility district funding.

“For us, it means things like all the theater systems that are 80 years old will get replaced: wiring, heating, air conditioning, new fire alarms and suppression systems — all of these systems that are pretty much warn out,” Burdick says. “That’s a huge deal for us.”


This June, the city awarded Ebenal General, with its bid of about $11.2 million, the contract to build the new Art and Children’s Museum at 216 Grand Avenue.

Construction began in August for the two-story museum building, which will have much more room to display the museum’s collections and provide more freedom for exhibits. There will also be streetscaping around museum, including a pedestrian patio and gathering area with public art. Culver expects the construction to be done by the end of 2008.

“You see the dirt flying over at the museum. There’s just a lot of activity,” Burdick says. “Over the next year and a half you’re going to see a lot of things that people have spent years of their life planning for and orchestrating and trying to get off the ground — and now it’s all happening.”


Now that the ball is rolling on the arts district, Culver hopes it will help bring in more restaurants and shops that will fit in with the district’s design and identity. There will also be streetscaping to tie the district together, including more outdoor dining and pedestrian areas, and an improved crossing at the corner of Bay and Holly, where the hope is that the arts district will lead into a new waterfront area.

“I think it’s going to serve everyone Whatcom County and it’s going to serve tourists as well,” Culver says. “It will become more of a destination. It’s just going to stand right up and start talking. I’ve seen it in the other places I’ve visited.”

Culver says Vancouver’s Granville Island and the Tacoma waterfront are two areas that served as inspiration for Bellingham’s arts district. He hopes it will not only bring in tourists, but improve the quality of life for local residents with added opportunities for entertainment and education.

And the commute is nice, too.

“You can be home in your bed in 10 minutes,” he says. “You can’t say that in Vancouver or Seattle, but you can see the same level of performances and art right here.”