By Jim Davis Herald Business Journal Editor
EDMONDS — Booking any concert is a roll of the dice.
Is it the right artist at the right venue at the right time? Will a competing act siphon away the audience? Will the weather discourage attendance?
Few bookings meant more than the Indigo Girls did for the Edmonds Center of the Arts in 2009.
The 700-seat concert house had opened during troubling times. It had undergone an $18 million renovation, played its first show in 2006 and launched its first season in 2007.
Then, the recession hit, hurting ticket sales for all venues, let alone one just getting under way.
“We, like every other business, only a year and a half after opening our doors, we were laying off people, we were taking furloughs,” said Joe McIalwain, the center’s only executive director. “We were doing everything that every business was doing to make ends meet.”
And it wasn’t enough. McIalwain had to cancel a couple of shows during that season, because they had sold fewer than 50 tickets.
It was embarrassing, difficult and tough.
Then McIalwain took a risk. He brought in the Indigo Girls, the folk rock music duo of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, that has had a long, consistently successful career.
He felt positive about the act, believing they would be well received. But it was for two nights and the center would charge the highest ticket prices it had ever charged in still uncertain times.
“We felt, I felt that we needed something to gain some attention, something big enough to warrant media coverage and, in part, to revive our spirits a little bit,” McIalwain said. “Because we all felt pretty defeated at that point and things were not clicking.”
Ticket sales opened at noon. The phones never stopped ringing. Every hand including McIalwain was in the box office taking orders. They sold out in two days.
“I knew that that experience was about to help us turn the corner,” McIalwain said. “That drew an audience of 1,400 people, many of whom had not been to our theater yet, who did not know who we were or even where we were.”
It laid the foundation for Edmonds Center for the Arts as an up-and-coming theater, a venue that continues to carve a place for itself in Western Washington’s competitive concert and performing arts scene.
The center lost money in 2009 and again in 2010. But it made a $1,000 in 2011, $78,000 in 2012 and $128,000 in 2013.
As a nonprofit, the money is put back into programs, services and facilities.
With positive revenue, the center has been able to attract bigger and better acts. Singers Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt performed this past season. The Indigo Girls returned in January. Joan Baez is scheduled to perform in July.
The 2014-15 season, which runs from October through May, offers Richard Thompson, Marc Cohn and Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks and others.
It’s proving to be an economic driver for the city of Edmonds.
“(The Edmonds Center for the Arts) is a real jewel for the communities in and around Edmonds,” said David Brewster, the president of the nonprofit that runs the center. “It’s part of a strong downtown, and it’s a destination for patrons all over the Northwest.”
The concert series alone will bring an estimated 16,000 people to the city. Another 30,000 to 40,000 show up for events that rent the venue including Rick Steves, who hosts talks on travel at the center, and Frank DeMiero, who runs a three-day jazz festival at the site.
Those feet on the street mean dollars for the community, said Bob Rinehart, president of the Edmonds Public Facilities District, which runs the center jointly with the nonprofit.
“We’ve calculated slightly under $3 million a year that the center puts back into the economy here,” Rinehart said.
“We get a lot of people who roll in who will go to restaurants and that sort of things.”
And it’s also generated interest in the community. More than 140 people volunteer at the venue, saving an estimated $100,000 in labor costs. The volunteer labor is noted before each performance.
The Edmonds Center for the Arts occupies the old Edmonds High School at 410 Fourth Ave. N. The high school was built more than a century ago and later became the city’s junior high school and then a Christian college.
The Edmonds Public Facilities District was established in 2001 to buy the property and create a concert venue in the city. The auditorium was renovated by LMN Architects in Seattle, the firm that did McCaw Hall.
For the renovations, the facilities district tapped into $11 million in sales tax revenues, the city of Edmonds put in $2 million and another $5 million was donated privately.
McIalwain, who was hired in 2006, puts together the concert series each year.
“We’re kind of at a sweet spot in terms of the size of our house, because it still feels intimate enough that you can have that great connection with the audience, but its big enough that we can get the artist in the door and keep ticket prices reasonable,” McIalwain said.
He’s been able to partner with other venues around the region to land these acts. That’s what happened with the Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt concert.
“I was talking to the agent and he said, ‘What about Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt just by themselves acoustic in your space? How does that sound?” McIalwain said. “Well I said, ‘That sounds fantastic.’”
But it needed to be a tour. McIalwain worked with the Mount Baker Theatre in Bellingham, the Broadway Center in Tacoma and Washington Center in Olympia to make the tour happen.
“Somehow the planets aligned, everybody had the right calendar and the right dates open and everybody was willing and excited to come in on it,” McIalwain said.
Not everything has been successful. In 2011, the center booked comedian Lily Tomlin to perform for two shows at the center.
“Ticket sales were going pretty well, but two or three months after we booked the show it was announced that Jerry Seinfeld was going to play at the same time at the Paramount,” McIalwain said. “I’m not saying they’re exactly the same audience, but there was certainly some crossover.”
He counted on the show to make money for the center. It lost money.
Still, the trend has been upward over the years. During the first season, the concert house sold on average 50 to 51 percent of its seats. Now it’s selling on average about 82 percent of the house.
“I’m not saying we have figured out the magical formula,” McIalwain said.
“But we’ve gotten ourselves to a place where we know a lot more about how to build a series that is interesting to people, that they can afford and that they have the time to come see.”