Council hears how ECA is coping during coronavirus shutdown; OKs distribution of additional grants to Edmonds residents in need

ECA Executive Director Joe McIalwain, upper right, talks during an Edmonds City Council Zoom meeting about the challenges facing the ECA in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to 2020, the Edmonds Center for the Arts was serving 85,000 people annually through live performances, meetings, workshops and special events.

Then came COVID-19.

“Over the last six months we’ve been sort of hunkered down,” ECA Executive Director Joe McIalwain told the Edmonds City Council during a presentation Tuesday night. In March, when the pandemic forced the closure of performing arts venues, the ECA laid off 16 team members — half of its staff — in production, facilities, box office and event management. The remaining 13 administrative team members are working half-time, McIalwain said.

Estimated ECA losses to date are $1.25 million, with 25 canceled or postponed presentations and 90-plus canceled rental events. The ECA is working to retain the revenue from the postponed shows, as well as show sponsorships, “and just get those artists on the stage as soon as we can, when it’s safe to do so,” he said.

McIalwain said the pandemic has dealt a blow to performing arts organizations nationwide, with 5 million jobs lost across the U.S. due to the closure of arts organization and entertainment venues.

“Almost every community has an arts organization, an entertainment venue, a museum — the list goes on and on,” he added.

What’s next for ECA? “Ours was one of the first industries to close and it appears that our will be almost the last industry to reopen, if not the last industry,” McIalwain said. It’s also a challenge that the U.S. government hasn’t provided emergency relief specific to the arts and entertainment industry. And because the ECA is owned and operated by the Edmonds Public Facilities District, an independent public agency, “we were unable to qualify for the PPP (paycheck protection program),” which could have provided needed financial relief, he noted.

While the ECA is determined to reopen as soon as health restrictions are lifted, a recent survey of ticket buyers suggests that it will likely take three years for pre-pandemic attendees to feel safe attending performing arts events, he said.

“What’s as heartbreaking about that as anything is that in 2019-2020 — halfway through the season — we were performing at the highest level we have performed at our history,” he said. “We were $100,000 ahead of our standard ticket sales pace. We had more people coming in to our shows than we had seen since we had opened the doors. Everything was looking up and the rug was pulled out from under us, unfortunately, in March.”

For the near-term, the ECA is focused on facility cleaning and reconfiguration of the building for traffic flow, looking at how patrons are brought into and out of the venue, and how they get to restrooms and to concession stands,” McIalwain said. The organization is also looking at possible options for smaller-scale live performances — perhaps offering two smaller shows in one night or a hybrid of live and remote performances where attendees could pay to watch performances remotely if they didn’t feel comfortable coming to the venue. There might also be opportunities for outdoor events next summer, he said.

In addition, ECA hopes to continue its annual family-friendly KidStock! program, with plans underway to present it in a multi-part video format, he said.

After McIalwain finished his presentation, Edmonds Public Facilities District President David Brewster told the council that the despite the performing arts center’s shutdown, revenue from contributions has remained strong. The ECA’s annual “Center Stage” event, in which patrons commit to sponsoring each of the season’s shows, was sold out and those sponsorships will remain in place once the shows are eventually rescheduled, he said. The ECA’s annual Gala and Auction — being held online this year — is set for Friday, Sept. 25 and admission is free. Register at

“We’re very excited about the future,” Brewster said. “We have a lot in play in terms of our strategic thinking.”

The final speaker was ECA Director of Operations Matt Keller, who said the goal since March has been to close the gap between revenue and expenses. Fortunately, the ECA has not seen a decline in the funding it receives via tax revenues from Snohomish County, he said.

Keller reiterated that 2019 was a banner year for ECA finances. “Although 2020 is going to be a particularly difficult year, I think the district and its board and staff are just happy to show that in 2018 and ’19 we were moving in the right direction and once we reopen that’s what our focus is going to be again,” he said.

In other business Tuesday night, the council:

– Approved an amendment to the Edmonds Cares Fund — financed through the federal CARES Act — that authorizes distribution of additional grant funds to individuals and families, depending on both ongoing need and demand from new applicants. Under the fund, which was okayed by the council in June, up to $1,000 is available to households of up to two members and up to $1,500 to households of three or more members who meet the income criteria. Applications may be submitted through

– Appointed Ashley Robinson to the Edmonds Cemetery Board and Katy Renz to the Sister City Commission.

– Agreed to postpone a study item originally on the council agenda — a review of a code update for the city’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan. Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson said the item wasn’t yet ready for council discussion.

— By Teresa Wippel




  1. I believe the ECA has been losing money since it was established? We were told it would pay for itself! I’m not so sure that’s the case. Is the balance sheet
    for the past 5 years available to post ?.

  2. Am deeply grateful so many dedicated people are working to keep the ECA, a gem in our community, on track and optimistic. Thank you Joe and David and Matt and everyone on your team!

  3. Hold up. Do you expect the ECA to turn a profit? Then perhaps you underestimate the economies of non-profits, and the arts in general. Yes, many arts organizations depend on patrons, grants, levies, corporate donations and government support. But they also revitalize communities, draw in folks who want to live in vibrant towns, and boost patronage of surrounding restaurants, pubs and other businesses. Arts institutions employ millions in our country, both the people who work at them, and the artists who appear at them. And if you can deal in intangibles, the arts feed our spirit. They day we stop subsidizing the arts is the day we stop kicking in public dollars to build sports stadiums (and I love the National Hockey League).

  4. Subsidies are everywhere. At the local level we can prioritize our spending but we do little to allow the public to participate. When we look at our capital budget we have way more than $100 million of projects waiting for funding. It may be time to put into motion some citizen participation in the budgeting process. With limited resources we may have to come down to choosing between Pavement vs Plays, Maintenance vs Marshs, and Sewers vs Singers. We need a public process.

  5. Great list Darrol, our choice would be #1 Pavement, #2 Maintenance, #3 Sewers. Very easy decision to make. Let’s see what our “elected” officials do.

  6. I am all for our streets, city maintenance and sewers but I also value the diversity of what ECA offers! It does so much more than the occasional show! Go back and listen to all Joe detailed; from programs for kids to dementia programs for our citizens, the symphony, as well as top named entertainers. ECA also greatly adds to the success of our local restaurants and retail shops. The arts are an important part of our lives. Let’s not lose sight of the great gem we have! We could certainly go ‘bare bones,’ get rid of our flowers, our Art Walks, our Concerts in the Park…but what are we left with? Certainly wouldn’t be the bustling Edmonds that we have grown to love!

  7. Marilyn, I too am all for streets and maintenance, sewer and water projects. I am also in favor of Arts things and things that support our new Creative District. The mayor said in a public meeting that the budget process for 2021 would have more engagement of the public in the budget process. That’s great to hear but I have not seen anything about how that added engagement will occur.

    We need to maintenance our streets and buildings and we need to subsidize the Arts. We now have some much better data on what is needed to keep ECA going. I have seen nothing about Wade James and Driftwood Players but the city probably has those numbers as well. Public works has already presented to council the budget requirements for streets and building maintenance both for deferred maintenance and ongoing.

    With all this data on just these issues it would be helpful if we simply asked council to fund both types of expenses goin forward. Seems if we want both we just ask council to put them in the budget.

    Is there something I am missing or do we all agree we want to do both?

  8. Darrol, I agree with your points as well. Looking forward to seeing the budget to see that the Council is listening.

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