#entertainment | 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 www.ec4arts.org.

“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 https://wellspringfs.org/edmonds

– 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




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