Theater replaces outdated systems

Mount Baker Theatre enters nine-month renovation period



Mount Baker Theatre Executive Director Brad Burdick is thrilled the old theater is finally getting an upgrade, including its more than 80-year-old electrical system.


On the first Sunday in March, the walls of the Mount Baker Theatre will shake and boom to the beat of Jigu! Thunder Drums of China, a show that pays homage to Chinese ancestors who drummed on the banks of the Yellow River to change winter to spring, dispel evil spirits and celebrate triumph over adversity.

That following Monday, the theater will undergo its own springtime transformation as it begins the second of a three-phase expansion and renovation — a transformation that will take the theater from the winter of its infrastructural existence into a new nine-month period of renovation and rejuvenation.

The echoes and bangs from construction workers will dispel the theater’s 80-year-old wiring and electrical systems and bring in new heating, ventilation and air conditioning, as well as improve acoustics and lighting. Improvements will also be made to fire suppression and alarms, administrative offices, and the ticket office.Upgrades to the heating and air conditioning ventilation will include drilling approximately 900 holes into the theater’s floor, so that every seat will have a silent air source. That way, patrons can listen to the performance of a single violin and not hear the hum of the heater behind it.

Brad Burdick, the theater’s executive director, said theaters nowadays are nothing more than square boxes jammed with technology.

“This [theater] has character,” Burdick said. “It’s one of those places that make Bellingham a unique place to live, work and visit.”


‘The gem of the entertainment industry’

When the theater was built back in 1927, stage performances were still the gem of the entertainment industry. However, the budding film industry led William Fox from the Fox Film Corporation to create a chain of theaters that maintained the capacity to show stage performances but were also equipped with projectors and screens to promote the new genre.

“One of the things that allowed this theater to survive was that it was a transitional theater,” Burdick said. “Because if you look at most theaters from the time, they were either performance spaces or film houses—they weren’t both.”

Up until the mid-’80s, the theater mainly showed films and occasional stage performances but then gradually shifted toward more live shows and fewer films.

“Back when I first started [in the mid-’90s], our contract with the city still said that we had to show 90 films a month because it was still seen as a film house,” Burdick said. “Now we’re becoming a regionally respected performing arts center and there are a lot of theaters that are looking to us to see what we are doing.”

Mount Baker Theatre’s first renovation began in 1994. It painted the theater’s walls, restored the old painting in the lobby, added a women’s restroom downstairs, installed a truss and flight system, covered the orchestra pit with an apron and reupholstered the seats.

“That gave us a few more capabilities to be able to shift from primarily movies to primarily performances,” Burdick said.

But the renovation also brought to light the need for several things that there was no money to pay for, such as outdated lighting, electrical and ventilation systems.

In 2003, representatives from LMN Architects of Seattle presented estimates for a three-phase theater expansion and renovation plan that would cost approximately $15.3 million.

Phase one of that plan began before the end of 2003 and consisted of purchasing the assorted storefronts on Commercial Street that were transformed into the Studio Theatre, a dressing room and additional backstage support space. Construction on phase one concluded in November 2004 and cost $4,414,472.

“Phase two is meant to address all the things that were called for in the mid-’90s,” Burdick said.

phot by Vincent Aiosa

Mount Baker Theatre’s Executive Director Brad Burdick sits in the airway under the seating at the more than 80-year-old theater. The theater will close this month for a nine-month upgrade that includes electrical and ventilation work.

Funding through the PFD, private donations

The Mount Baker Theatre renovation is funded by the Bellingham-Whatcom Public Facilities District, an independent municipal taxing authority created by the state specifically to fund facilities that encourage economic development within a core regional area.

The district which began work in July 2002, is governed by a seven-member board of directors appointed by both the city and county councils, with one member chosen by the smaller cities in the county.

The district receives 0.033 percent of sales tax collected in Bellingham and Whatcom County and expects to receive a total of $13 million to $15 million based on annual rebates of $700,000 for 25 years. To pay for capital projects up front, the district issues bonds backed by the city, which are repaid by the steady trickle of sales tax rebates.

Tara Sundin, special project manager for the Public Facilities District, said their total working budget is a little over $21 million, which is split between the Mount Baker Theatre and the new Arts and Children’s Museum, which is currently being built around the corner from the theater on the corner of Grand Avenue and Flora Street.

The money comes from a mix of bond money issued in 2004 and 2007 and $4 million in private donations raised in the Campaign for the Arts. Fundraisers are still trying to raise another $4.6 million, which will be used as an endowment fund split between the theater and the museum.

“It will be an ongoing fund that allows for maintenance and employee services,” Sundin said. “It’s a way to get things done without passing the burden onto the city of Bellingham and the other smaller cities.”

David Warren, president of the Public Facilities District’s board of directors, said he has the highest respect for those out raising private donations for the arts in Bellingham.

“It’s a very daunting task,” he said. “I just admire these people tremendously for stepping up and raising the money and doing what is necessary to make this very successful. It’s very gratifying to watch.”

Burdick said other theaters in Yakima, Olympia and Tacoma are constantly amazed with what Mount Baker Theatre has been able to accomplish with the Campaign for the Arts and the Public Facilities District.

“They are looking to us as an example of how it can work when we collaborate with other organizations to get things done,” Burdick said.

The state mandated that the Public Facilities District had to begin a capital project before December 2003, so they began buying up the storefronts on Commercial Street and began phase one. The city first borrowed money to begin the project and then issued a bond in 2004 that paid back the lenders.

“The district wanted to do something visible that would show that things are starting to happen in the cultural district,” Burdick said.


Phase Two bidding runs into snags

In December 2007, a bond just shy of $10 million was issued to pay for phase two of the theater’s renovation with the rest going to the Arts and Children’s Museum.

The city of Bellingham solicited 114 contractors for the renovation’s second phase and received bids from four contractors: Ebenal General, Dawson Construction, Boss Construction and Colacurcio Brothers Construction.

The initial low bidder was Ebenal General, which bid $4,194,644. But soon thereafter, both the city of Bellingham and the Public Facilities District noticed five mathematical anomalies in Ebenal’s bid, which was later contested by Dawson Construction, the second-lowest bidder.

Despite the anomalies, Warren and the rest of the district’s board of directors recommended that the City Council go ahead with Ebenal General.

But the City Council had other ideas.

Gene Knutson, a city councilman representing Bellingham’s second ward, said the council normally throws out bids that contain any irregularities and did so in this case against the recommendation of the Public Facilities District.

“We just didn’t agree with that,” Knutson said. “We’ve seen bids thrown out for a lot less.”

So the council tossed the responsive bids and reopened the bidding process. The city resolicited the project to 38 contractors and received bids from the same four companies. This time Dawson Construction came in with the low bid at $4,161,000 and on Feb. 11, the City Council voted unanimously to accept the bid, which came in $1.6 million under the project engineer’s original estimate.

When the council reopened the project for another round of bids, they did so in the shortest legal amount of time possible so as to not affect the theater’s renovation schedule.

“Assuming there are no more delays, we should be fine,” Burdick said. “We just want to make sure whoever gets it does a good job. I would have been happy with Ebenal and I am happy that Dawson won this last bid.”


Entering into the theater’s ‘intermission’

Around the Mount Baker Theatre offices, the staff does not call the theater’s nine-month main stage hiatus a “closure.”

“We like to think of it as an intermission,” Burdick said.

In reality, the theater will be anything but closed. It will pack in 16 to 20 shows in front and behind the renovation in an attempt to squeeze in as many shows as possible.

The theater will also have their “extended season,” which features weeklong runs of nationally touring shows in the Studio Theatre and will provide an intimate atmosphere for performances that normally perform in full-size auditoriums. So the theater hopes a weeklong run in the Studio Theatre will be seen by as many people as on one night on the main stage.

“If [patrons] have ever been inside the Studio Theatre, it will look different than they have ever seen it,” Burdick said.

The “intermission” will also give the theater’s board of directors a chance to think about where the theater has come from and where it is going.

When Burdick first started as executive director about 10 years ago, the theater was struggling financially, so they drafted a business plan and a 20-year capital development plan.

“When we finish this renovation, we’ll actually be well ahead of where we planned on going,” Burdick said. “One of the things the board will be discussing is where we go next.”

Now that the board doesn’t have to worry about making sure the theater survives for the next few years, it can focus on some larger questions, such as: How do we expand the mission of the theater? What can we do with this place to make the greatest benefit to the community?

“I see a lot of opportunities for us,” Burdick said.

One of those opportunities could be phase three of the renovation plan originally presented in 2003, which would extend the backstage of the theater out and up, so the current main stage would grow from 26 to 42 feet. It would also expand the orchestra pit to accommodate a 45-piece orchestra.

“If we did that, we could do significantly larger performances on the main stage,” Burdick said.

However, if the theater wanted to pursue phase three, they would have to find a different source of funding.

“The money from the Public Facilities District will be just about all used up after these last projects,” Burdick said.

If everything stays on schedule, the theater will reopen on Dec. 6. Burdick said the theater already has a show contracted to perform, but he was unable to say what it might be.

“It will be the biggest event we have ever had and it will be a great way to reopen the theater and highlight all the new features of the theater,” Burdick said.

For now, Mount Baker Theatre fans will have to be kept in suspense until the theater emerges from its current metamorphosis.


Renovation history and possible future


Mid-‘90s renovation:

Painted the theater’s walls, restored the old painting in the lobby, added a women’s restroom downstairs, installed a truss and flight system, covered the orchestra pit with an apron and reupholstered the seats.


Phase One (completed):

Acquired storefronts along Commercial Street and transformed them into the Studio Theatre, a dressing room and additional backstage support space.


Phase Two (in progress):

Replace old wiring and electrical systems, bring in new heating, ventilation and air conditioning, improve acoustics, lighting, fire suppression equipment and alarms, administrative and ticket office.


Phase Three (pending, currently lacking funding):

Extend backstage of the theater out and up, so the current main stage would grow from 26 to 42 feet and expand the orchestra pit to accommodate a 45-piece orchestra.

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