Theater plays leading role in downtown Astoria revitalization

Clatsop County Historical Society board member Patricia Roberts and facilities manager Matt Powers prepare the McTavish Room for the New Year's Eve silent auction and masquerade ball.

ASTORIA — Ten years after its grand reopening, the Liberty Theater is holding its own financially thanks to a business approach to running the operation.

The Astoria landmark generates 80 percent of its annual operating expenses through its events, venue rentals and 11 commercial leases.

“Normally theaters bring in 30 to 50 percent; ... we’re a little ahead of the game, because we have only 20 percent to raise [through fundraisers],” said Rosemary Baker-Monaghan, executive director of Liberty Restoration, Inc., the nonprofit formed to restore and run the theater.

The Liberty restoration had four elements, she said: cultural enrichment, educational outreach, historic preservation, economic revitalization. The first two phases of the Liberty restoration brought the theater back to life.

The restoration also helped spur revitalization downtown, she said. The Hotel Elliott, the Commodore and an influx of other businesses helped change the character of downtown.

“We think the Liberty triggered some of that,” she said. “In addition, the spaces from Ardelle’s all the way around the block to North Coast Distillers lease from us, so there’s a stability for us economically as a theater, and for the community we have all those commercial spaces leased plus two that were created on the second floor.”

She’s not alone in her assessment.

“It’s made a very positive impact,” said Mitch Mitchum co-owner of the Astoria Event Center through Luottamus Partners. “It’s attracted new businesses. Those touristy restaurants wouldn’t be there without the Liberty.”

Luottamus Partners owns several commercial properties downtown. The general vacancy rate downtown is quite good this past year, Mitchum said, and the Liberty gets its fair share of the credit.

The theater and its events generate traffic downtown, he added.

The theater itself plus the McTavish Room and Paulson Pavillion upstairs generate money through rentals. They’re used for community events, conferences, performances and even weddings.

Baker-Monaghan said the Liberty works well with “conferences without walls” — meetings where the whole community is a conference center. The Liberty’s auditorium can seat 665. The McTavish Room has room for 185 diners.

“We can seat a lot in the plenary session in the theater, and then they can have a networking, small meeting area in the McTavish Room and three breakout rooms in Paulson.”

If the group is larger than 300, the reception can go to another location in town.

“Which is great, because then we’re spreading that business around, which is part of that revitalization piece,” she said. “So if they go to The Loft, for example, they can seat 240; now with the Armory … they can certainly seat everybody.”

The Liberty has a catering kitchen on the second floor. It’s not certified yet; it lacks a ventilation hood and fire suppression. It will take $31,000 to finish the job.

“I’ve got grants out, about six of them,” Baker-Monaghan said.

The kitchen will make the facility a more attractive rental for groups wanting food service.

The Liberty celebrates its 90th birthday this year. Financially the theater is breaking even, Baker-Monaghan said.

“This the 10th anniversary since our grand reopening and we’re still in business after that economy,” she said. “The first 10 years of a brand new company, but we’re even, which is a big accomplishment running a theater.”

It’s a business approach to running the theater that’s made all the difference, she said.

“It is a business, and you have to run it like a business,” she said. “The theaters that run it like a theater instead of like a business are the ones that are out of business now.”

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