Artfully Edmonds: Edmonds Center for Arts marks 5th anniversary and plans for bright future

By Ellen Chappelle

One of Edmonds’ most beloved young entities is celebrating its fifth year of life this fall. In that short time, the Edmonds Center for the Arts has already become “the place to be” on weekend nights in Edmonds, according to Executive Director Joe McIalwain.

“We wouldn’t be here without the support of the Edmonds community,” he said of the growing crowds that are flocking to each event, regardless of whether a local artist or a nationally renowned performer is taking the stage. In the midst of challenging economic times, McIalwain adds, “we have accomplished something pretty fantastic.”

Stating that ECA is “hitting a huge milestone with our fifth season,” McIalwain shared his excitement about the well-rounded upcoming event schedule while acknowledging that he and his staff have some work to do in the fundraising department. They are also carefully considering plans for the future that will allow the organization to flourish and serve the community even better.

Joe McIalwain a perfect fit as executive director

I met Joe McIalwain just outside the ECA offices as he was pushing a cart down the hall. It was immediately apparent that he was a hands-on kind of guy, someone who is not just there to do a job, but who throws heart and soul – and his back, if needed – into the task. And his bright, welcoming smile and firm handshake reveal that he loves what he does.

A true local who grew up in Seattle, McIalwain graduated from the University of Washington, where he studied drama. He earned his master’s degree in nonprofit theatre management from the University of Alabama, where he taught as interim professor for a year after graduation. That was followed by two years with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and then McIalwain and his wife moved home to Seattle in 2001 to be near family and raise their children. McIalwain did fundraising for Kirkland Performance Center until January of 2006, when he was hired to take the helm at ECA.

Joe McIalwain

ECA continues educational history of its building
It’s clear that McIalwain is proud to be part of the storied history of the art deco style building that began life in 1909 as Edmonds High School. He gladly gave a history-filled tour of the building that has also served the Edmonds community as a junior high school and a college.

The building has always been involved in education. Perhaps that’s why McIalwain lights up as he talks about Stella Maris Academy, the school that operates in several of its rooms. He enjoys the life and energy that the children bring to the old halls, and to those who work there.

And in a time where schools are cutting their budgets – most often in the arts – McIalwain is glad that ECA can help fill those gaps with educational arts programs, student matinees, workshops and residencies.

The Center provides an intimate setting for the audience to enjoy professional artists.

Center’s benefits to the community are many

A full-fledged center for the arts is “very special for a community of this size,” McIalwain said. “It provides an opportunity for area residents to see professional stage presentations in an intimate, state-of-the-art setting close to home.”

Benefits to local residents include free parking, less traffic and a much shorter trip than driving to a performance in downtown Seattle. The facility also ensures that more dollars, such as those spent on pre-show meals or after-show drinks, remain in the community, benefiting local businesses. The 50,000 people that come through ECA’s doors each year add just under $3 million  annually to the area’s economy.

ECA also provides a home for several performing arts organizations, which the center calls its community partners: Cascade Symphony Orchestra, Sno-King Community Chorale, Olympic Ballet Theatre and the Theatre Arts program at Edmonds Community College. And these organizations, which were using the building before it became the Edmonds Center for the Arts, are thrilled with the upgrades the ECA has brought. Having them as part of the ECA family is “a tribute to their work,” McIalwain said.

There are social benefits to a local arts center, too, he added. Not only are arts patrons enjoying the performances, they’re enjoying each other. “More than just the experience in the theatre, the community experience is pretty fantastic, too,” said McIalwain, describing many scenes in the lobby of people reconnecting and socializing.

Unforeseen financial struggles cause challenges

Stories have been cropping up in the news lately about ECA’s financial struggles. But that’s only half the story. The business side of ECA, McIalwain said, “has grown by leaps and bounds in the past two and a half years.” Revenues from ticket sales, rentals and donations (in an even split of revenue) continue to increase. So why the money problems?

“The challenge we face right now is on the capital side,” he said, going on to explain what the changes in the local economy over the past few years have done to the ECA’s capital obligations.

In the 1990s, a levy designed to help pay for a portion of Safeco Field was voted down, so King County approached the state Legislature for help to find another way to raise those funds. The Legislature proposed the creation of a Public Facilities District (PFD) in King County that would receive a small rebate of state sales taxes collected within the county for specifically chosen projects — in this case, Safeco Field.

Of course, other counties – and even cities – hoping for their own sales tax rebate followed suit. Snohomish County created a PFD, as did Edmonds in 2000, choosing to create a center for the arts as its project. Edmonds PFD used its sales tax rebate to purchase and manage the ECA property for the next four years, while creating the project design. Renovations followed in 2005.

In 2008, Snohomish County PFD ended up with extra funds after paying for its chosen projects and decided to allocate the remaining funds on a percentage basis among other projects in the county. “ECA made a very compelling presentation,” McIalwain said. “And we had performed very well on the operating side, compared to our original projections.”

As a result, ECA was allocated just under 22 percent of what was available – a figure that, during those boom times, was conservatively projected to be about $200,000 per year. This amount was designated to help pay for the necessary renovations to the ECA campus. Bonds were issued and guaranteed with this new revenue stream.

But with the drastic turn in the economy that began in September of that year, the annual river of cash from the county slowed to a trickle, declining to a mere $12,000 this year, rather than the projected $200,000. And now the bonds are coming due.

When the bonds were originally issued, the City of Edmonds guaranteed them, meaning that if — for whatever reason — ECA was unable to make a bond payment, the city would have to make that payment. Of course, the economy was so strong at the time that no one expected that to happen. But it did. And like every other business, the city has its own budget challenges these days.

So McIalwain and his team are working closely with the PFD, the city staff and the city council to find other solutions. A task force meets monthly, discussing ways to improve ECA operations and possibly extend the PFD legislation by another 10 years, creating a new revenue stream.

“There may be lots of possibilities and we need to work as a team to find those solutions. And we will!” exclaimed McIalwain. “In the short term, it’s a burden on the city and hard on all of us.”

Future is bright for ECA

First and foremost on ECA’s to-do list is the task of coming up with solutions for the capital issues. After that, McIalwain said, those who guide and direct the future of the Center need to have important conversations. “At this point, we’ve outgrown our original vision,” he said.

The building still has areas that need renovation. And just how it will be renovated is still unclear. One possible option that was a part of the original concept is to build a two-level parking garage where the current parking lot stands. On top of that garage would be a beautiful event room with a full-service kitchen and a sweeping view patio, bringing more rental income to the Center.

“But is that what this facility should be about?” McIalwain wonders aloud. Or, he asks, should the next step be something more specifically arts-oriented? “Or can we have both?”

“Maybe we have more soul searching to do. It’s an exciting place to be. I can’t wait to find out what’s next!”

Allison Crowe performs in 2009.

Regardless of the financial hurdles facing the Center, the good news is that the five-year-old organization is experiencing solid growth. And McIalwain says there’s no danger of ECA closing its doors. Events and programs are thriving. Audiences, rentals and donations all continue to climb. “The work that we do here is having a tremendous impact,” he said.

McIalwain has a message for those who love ECA and want to help: “Come discover what the Center is about! I hope people would at least try to see three or four shows a year.”

In the midst of difficult times, “part of getting back to life and getting back to your creativity and getting back to your involvement in your community is getting out of your house,” McIalwain said. “I would hope what we do here is part of a solution.”

With a background in theatre and journalism, Ellen Chappelle is perfectly poised to covers the local arts scene for My Edmonds News. She also keeps busy writing and editing for artists and small businesses, publishing an informational site for dog owners and creating handcrafted jewelry. Please keep her posted about all things artistic in Edmonds by emailing her at

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