Downtown Bellingham is getting a new performing arts venue

By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal

A new addition is coming to Bellingham’s downtown.

You’ve may have already noticed; it’s big and orange and right next to Old City Hall. Idiom Theater has taken over the old Laundry Building and is transforming it into a multi-organization, multi-venue performing arts center.

“There’s a huge need for performance space,” said Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao, the founder and artistic director of Idiom Theater.

The building will house two performance venues, a main stage with seating for 160 people, plus a studio theater which seats 75.

Phase two of the plan will be the renovation of the second floor. [Emily Hamann | BBJ]
Phase two of the plan will be the renovation of the second floor. [Emily Hamann | BBJ]
The center will also have rehearsal spaces, classrooms, offices and a cafe with a small stage.

The smaller theater will have a permanent sprung floor, for dance performances.

Phase one of the plan involves the renovation of the first floor of the building, and includes the cafe/bar area and both stages. That is underway now; the studio theater is expected to open by September of this year, and rest of phase one is scheduled to open by February of 2017.

Phase one costs $1.4 million. Of that, $850,000 has already been raised. Most of it came from the owners of the building and will be spent on seismic upgrades. The rest of the money will come mostly from individual donations, grants, and Hergenhahn-Zhao said they’re planning on launching a crowdfunding campaign as the project moves along.

The center is named after Sylvia Scholtz, grandmother of Ben Scholtz, owner of Mallard Ice Cream. Sylvia Scholtz was a longtime patron of Idiom Theater and lifelong supporter of the arts in Whatcom County. She died a few years ago.

Hergenhahn-Zhao said the new center is attempt to help with the dire shortage of performing arts venues in the city. Even the new Sylvia Center, with two stages, will only satisfy a portion of the need.

“We’re not going to have any trouble filling the calendar,” he said.

For the most part, dance studios and theaters can either put on performances at their own, small, studios or they can rent a massive space like the Mt. Baker Theatre.

“There’s a need for that in-between space,” Hergenhahn-Zhao said.

The Sylvia Center will only take up 16,000 square feet of the historic building. The owners of the  building are also looking for new tenants in the back. Hergenhahn-Zhao hopes more community gathering places, like restaurants or breweries will move in.

“We’ve been trying to convince people that this will be a draw and a center of gravity,” he said. When it’s in full swing, the Sylvia Center will draw between 600 and 800 people a weekend to that part of town, at 203 Prospect St.

For 14 years, Idiom Theater has been located at a 96-seat theater at 1418 Cornwall Avenue.

“We’ve been kind of pushing out the walls out there,” Hergenhahn-Zhao said.

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