Auburn plans to open new theater downtown

Project estimated to cost between $8.5 million and $10 million.

Sketches on cocktail napkins.

That was how Auburn’s director of parks arts and recreation, Daryl Faber, described to city council members Monday night the state of plans to bring a new theater to Auburn’s downtown.

Sketchy, yes, but with some solid bones, as portrayed in drawings of an expanded, two-story theater about 25 percent larger than the old theater, with additional seating.

Among the many questions still to answer, however, are how the city would pay for a project estimated to cost between $8.5 million and $10 million.

Faber is undaunted.

“When you have a mission and a goal, you have to have a plan in place, and I have a passion for getting this theater reopened in our downtown,” Faber said.

A key part of this story is the shuttered Auburn Avenue Theater at 1 Auburn Avenue. Built in 1926, the building was originally used as a bus depot, and later a movie theater and a dinner theater. The city of Auburn entered into a lease in 2007 with the former owners, the Douglas family, which had operated the dinner theater.

Once in charge, the city the city ran its Bravo! Performing Arts season from the theater, offering teen and adult performances of all kinds, bands, comedy, tributes, even full-scale theater productions for adults and kids. Most of the touring groups were from the Northwest.

In 2016, the city bought the theater outright. Receipts over the last 14 years show the theater was successful both in attracting people avid for entertainment to the downtown core and as a money maker. The venue hosts performances summing to about 80 each year with an average annual attendance of 14,000.

On July 24, 2021, fire destroyed the adjacent Max House Apartment building and associated businesses. The city abated the resulting smoke and water damage to the theater and reopened it in September 2021.

Demolition of the Max House wreckage in December 2021, however, so damaged the theater that the city condemned it and red taped it in Jan. 2022. Months afterward, the city bought a portion of the old Max House property up to the corner with East Main.

The old theater will be demolished as part of related city project.

Bringing back all that the theater brought to Auburn and more cannot be overestimated in terms of economic development.

“It’s the big economic driver of downtown, having that theater there, in terms of people staying in town, getting a meal, having a beverage, buying a gift, maybe getting to the event at all,” said Julie Krueger, arts and events manager for the city of Auburn. “That … equates to $440,000 a year in secondary spending in the downtown, and in the city as a whole.”

According to a report compiled by America for the Arts in 2015, the average per-person, audience expenditure beyond merely buying a ticket was an additional $31. Records show the city drew 14,000 people to the downtown in 2019, when it gathered in more than $220,000 in direct revenue.

Here’s a breakdown of the total audience participation based on ticket sales in terms of distance from Auburn:

31 percent: 1-5 miles

12 percent: 6-10 miles

11 percent: 11-20 miles

33 percent: 21-50 miles

9 percent: 51 miles

3 percent: out of state.

Downtown outlook

Since the city first leased and opened the theater, Brewer said, 14 years have passed. And the downtown is a much different place than it was in 2008. Among the changes: the 175 units of housing that have been added, and the two fires that swept away the Heritage Apartments in 2017 and the Max House Apartments in 2021.

Another change can be seen in renovation of the former Auburn Post Office into the Postmark Center for the Arts and Auburn Arts Alley to the immediate north. The latter building celebrates its grand opening on Sept. 14.

The city has brought in ARC Consultants, which years ago worked on the Auburn Community Center in Les Gove Park and has experience with local theaters, too.

“We want them to at least do some early conceptual ideas under the parameters of increasing capacity from 240 to 250 seats to 300 to 310, so a slightly larger venue to get a little better return on our investment, but not so large that a performance would make the audience small. It’s a pretty common size for a downtown theater, and we think it would be really successful,” said Faber.

Among the city’s goals is to extend the theater to an entrance at the corner Main Street and Auburn Avenue, to allow loading from the back alleyway for bands and performances, and to link the project to the Postmark Center for the Arts.

In addition, the city hopes to get a firm idea from ARC about how much space the theater’s house will need.

“We know our former stage was way undersized, and the green room behind the stage … was terrible. But it wasn’t designed to be a theater. Everybody did their best with what we had. We’ve taken a lot of the concepts [ARC] has drawn, and we can do it on about 10,000 square feet of that property,” Faber said.

Drawings show the city also owns property immediately east of the proposed theater’s footprint, but the city has not yet decided what to do with it. Although Faber said it could one day be a plaza or a different downtown building or even artists’ lofts.

“I want to be really clear: we haven’t gone into any depth of design other than some cocktail napkins and what they did here,” he said, “but we’ve spent a lot of time talking about it with theater director Jim Kleinbeck and others throughout the city.”

While the work is in progress, the city’s engineering department will be updating downtown infrastructure and underground utilities. Parts of that project will dovetail with the theater plans. Engineer Matt Larson said the work will encompass surface improvements, a new roadway and sidewalks, curbs and gutters to downtown standard designs, and new pedestrian lighting.

“We’re also doing a new traffic signal there at Auburn Avenue and Main Street. It’s one of our oldest signals in the downtown area. We’ll also be upgrading the surface and doing some utility work within the B Street Plaza … overhead string lighting beautification. … As of now, the budget for the infrastructure project does include demolishing the (old) theater and starting some schematic designs for the theater.”

Brewer has suggested placing a park on top of the two-story theater, an idea embraced by council members.

“We need that downtown,” said Councilmember Cheryl Rakes, who suggested the city retain the marquee on the old theater for placement on the new one. “I absolutely love that.”

Here are some of the preliminary cost estimates:

Direct building costs: $8 million to $8.5 million. Total cost with arts and entertainment feeds, furnishings and equipment, contingency, taxes, factored at 30% of direct costs is $10.5 million to $11 million.

Funding options: Downtown Infrastructure Funds at $1,100,000 for a new traffic signal at East Main and Auburn Avenue; $2,881,866 for utility and roadway/plaza improvements.

Theater demo and schematic design: $228,200 insurance claim reimbursement, a $100,000 King County grant for theater detailed design and construction, a $1,498,650 Washington State Grant.

Additional funding options and opportunities: Park impact fees, ARPA funding reallocation, real estate excise tax, naming rights, inside debt, and cell tower lease revenues.

“That gives us two and a half years to get this done and celebrate the (theater’s) 100th birthday. We are the blight in the downtown. We need to figure out how to accomplish this,” Faber said.