In 2017, Mount Baker Theatre—the building—will celebrate its 90th birthday. On Saturday, April 29, 2017 MBT will host a community party inviting theatre-goers to dress in ‘20s attire, enjoy birthday cake, sip signature drinks, and dance on the main stage behind a world-class swing band. The true gift of this birthday party: what began as a luxe movie palace in 1927 has evolved to become a thriving performing arts center in Bellingham’s downtown Arts District.
Currently, MBT hosts over 110,000 people in more than 400 annual events across its three venues. This is quite an accomplishment for what was a small town theatre in need of repair that was slated for demolition in the 1980s. This stunning community treasure was saved from the wrecking ball by a dedicated group of visionaries and volunteers, who saw its future as Mount Baker Theatre “the community arts resource” as described by the Theatre’s current mission:
A) To provide arts, entertainment, and social interaction which, through a wide variety of programs, results in personal enrichment, enjoyment, and a sense of community for diverse audiences in the region.
B) To preserve the restored historic Mount Baker Theatre as a home for local performing arts organizations, film, a venue for touring performers, and community events.
In a great example of civic partnership between city, county, and community, a new structure emerged: the city-owned facility is managed by the Mount Baker Theatre Corporation, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization. That ‘80s wrecking ball was set aside to make room for other big changes: a gorgeous restoration and repurpose of existing spaces done in phases to arrive at the gem of a building we see today.
Since 1984, private support by the community has funded $14 million in capital improvements to the city’s building. The Hotel/Motel Tax was increased in the late ‘90s to help fund the Theatre’s management fee. MBT in turn contributes approximately $90,000 annually to the city’s general fund in admissions and other taxes, acts a community driver for arts tourism to the tune of $6 million in economic impact, and provides a professional event space for local entities such as the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra, various performing arts schools, film festivals, local higher education institutions, and much more.
Becoming the premier cultural tourism destination for Whatcom County is something the Theatre achieves because it provides “access.” Patrons can experience world-class entertainment without having to travel to New York, or even Seattle. This is important not just to Bellingham residents but across the region and to folks looking to combine elements of outdoors and culture in one vacation, as represented in this statistic: 40% of the people who have attended Theatre events reside outside Whatcom County.
“Access” is not just to entertainment from afar, but to the building itself as a word-class facility for local presenters. Our professionally-managed historic stage hosts the little feet of local dance students, the “walks” of various college graduates, and well-heeled speakers from various civic and community groups. From ski films to local authors, the stunning theatrical setting can make local events “big.”
Because of this, Mount Baker Theatre’s community of supporters is large and loyal. In addition to the 110,000 visitors through our doors each year, MBT has tracked 131,152 hours donated by passionate volunteers in the past 20 years. The STARS organization is a group of highly invested volunteers, and there are generally around 200 active volunteers on the roster for the organization at any given time. The theatre also inspires its 1000 Members to contribute $50 or more on an annual basis, and eighty-five business and individual sponsors underwrite around $356,000 in activities, an average of $4200 each!
The direct economic impact the Theatre makes on our local community is substantial. MBT’s direct annual operating expenditures total $3,000,000. This includes $149,000 in lodging in local hotels and another $10,000 in artist hospitality. Additional artist-paid economic activity is estimated at another $275,000 in lodging plus ancillary spending for transportation, souvenirs and gifts, and meals and snacks. Patron spending, based on figures determined by the 2010 Arts & Economic Prosperity study from the Americans for the Arts, equates to an additional $2.7 million in direct spending associated with our 110,000 patrons. MBT employs seventeen full-time staff, many part-time positions, and has a pool of 300 union stagehands that work productions coming from as far out as Seattle.
The economics are important, but the arts play another important role in a community’s “livability,” something that has become more and more important with increasing numbers of retirees and folks that work from their homes—people who move somewhere for its attributes, not because of a job or family. Arts provide diversity, innovation, collaboration, and a host of other vital attributes that go into making a healthy, thriving community. MBT brings not only headlining performers and international touring acts to our community, but also curates an Education Series that provided over 17,000 regional children access to professional arts curriculum last year.
But Mount Baker Theatre is more than events with tickets. The community spaces act as an anchor for downtown Bellingham’s arts district. Performances, rehearsals, keynote speakers, meetings, and more happen on the Main Stage, in the “black box” Walton Theatre, and in the 1,200-square foot Encore Room. Many community arts nonprofits take advantage of the program that allows free use of the Encore room. There is usually something happening in the building in addition to our all-audience ticketed shows.
Mount Baker Theatre is looking forward to 2017 and intends to spend the entire year celebrating this unique partnership that keeps a thriving community asset alive and strong.
The Mount Baker Theatre, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supporting the performing arts, receives support from a Tourism Facilities Grant from the City of Bellingham.