It’s show night and downtown Mount Vernon is buzzing. The riverfront, at times in the past a near ghost town, is alive with showgoers as they leave local restaurant tables and bars and enter through the doors of the Lincoln Theatre.
Patrons file into the 480-seat house where Spanish rug designs decorate the high walls with ornate trim. The Lincoln, originally built in the 1920s and restored during the COVID-19 pandemic, embodies downtown Mount Vernon’s revitalization as well as stimulating economic activity among small businesses.
Lincoln Theatre executive director Damond Morris remembers a time when store windows were shuttered, and “there really wasn’t a lot of reason to come downtown.”
There were about 11 vacancies among the seven-block-long and three-block-wide district after the Great Recession in2008, and the city formed the Mount Vernon Downtown Association as a remedial task force, said executive director Ellen Gamson.
Downtown businesses had already suffered in the 1980s when customers left to shop at Skagit Valley Square on College Way and Cascade Mall in Burlington. In additions, high insurance rates due to intermittent flooding made tenancy prohibitively expensive, Gamson said.
A downtown revival was further delayed by 2008 recession, followed by COVID-19. The Lincoln was closed for 18 months during the pandemic, and its membership plummeted to around 400, Morris said.
But staff used the downtime to restore the theater, and they have been expanding its events and services with more live shows, film screenings and theater education. Membership post-pandemic is more than 1,000 and still growing. Business is booming and the downtown the Lincoln calls home is sharing in the benefit.
Getting the snowball rolling
Developing a brand and tagline for the downtown was an early mission for the Mount Vernon Downtown Association, Gamson said. They coined “Mount Vernon — it’s happening”
Gamson said she saw many smirks from people making fun of the aspirational tagline. Now, she said, some of those nonbelievers have told her over the past couple of years that “it’s really happening!”
“I feel like it’s been a huge snowball effect and the Lincoln probably had a big part to play in getting that ball rolling, especially with their increased programming,” said Emma Oates, community engagement manager for the downtown association. Restored and busy businesses like the Lincoln Theatre show visitors that the downtown is beautiful and has foot traffic, encouraging more revitalization and incoming businesses, she said.
“You have to invest in those businesses that are going to bring people to downtowns,” Morris said. “How do you invest in downtowns? Well, one of the things that’s pretty incredible is having a theater downtown like the Lincoln Theatre that has live shows, film, theater, education.”
Private investors and businesses are attracted when they see a community investing in a downtown and its infrastructure, said Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau. “That’s absolutely the whole point of our efforts is to ensure that our downtown is viable and thriving moving forward”
The Mount Vernon Downtown Association task force is a Main Street America program, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It helps with economic development, building community, attracting new businesses and supporting an entrepreneurial ecosystem, Gamson said. In process since 2009, it’s taken years of foundational action and incremental development to get the downtown’s snowball rolling.
One secret to revival that the task force learned has been at the Lincoln Theatre all along: the arts.
“We have always chosen as an organization to focus on the arts community and the arts themselves as a mechanism for attracting people to our downtown and as an economic driver,” Gamson said. “I would say that we have a high concentration of artistic individuals with talent.”
In the 1990s, the city had tried showcasing downtown by throwing community events like sidewalk sales, Halloween trick-or-treating and Christmas parades, Gamson said. But seeing consistent support for the Tulip Festival Street Fair and art business galleries in other Skagit County communities, the Mount Vernon Downtown Association started organizing art walks five to seven months out of the year, Gamson said.
“We didn’t have galleries, but we believe that there was a market in our community to support that and there was an unmet need in our community,” Gamson said. “And for as long as I’ve been around, we’ve partnered with the Lincoln Theatre on certain things. We support each other, amplify each other’s work — it’s just kind of hand-in-hand; performing arts and the visual arts.”
‘Jewel in the crown’
Gamson calls the Lincoln Theatre “the jewel in the crown of our downtown.”
“I would consider the Lincoln Theatre an anchor for our downtown, because when they’re putting on events, bringing in artists, they’re bringing hundreds of people whenever they have their events to our downtown core and it’s a catalyst for spending,” Boudreau said.
Not only is the theater a destination business for visitors from a wider area as the only evening entertainment in the district, but it’s likely to bring those visitors back multiple times over as it introduces them to other vibrant businesses and the lively downtown, Gamson said.
“You got people walking up and down the street, folks that are shopping in businesses and getting flowers and it is allowing the downtown to thrive because we’re here,” Morris said.
Lincoln Theatre members get 10% off at almost every downtown restaurant, which reciprocates business and shows downtown why these patrons are there, Morris said. The theater also drives downtown revenue because visitors can spend their discretionary money locally instead of with Ticketmaster in Seattle or elsewhere.
Another part of bringing in more customers has been making events more fun and engaging.
The theater has hosted interactive film screenings like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” giving the audience coconuts to clop together. They hand out bread to throw during the annual screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and even sponsor a 21-and-up costume contest for “The Big Lebowski,” served with White Russians, Morris said. They hope to host the Pacific Northwest Film Festival in August.
“It’s packed,” Morris said. “People love it.”
Educational offerings are also expanding, Morris said, including sketch theater camps, theater acting and design through the Lincoln Players theater school, and the Skagit Theater Camp.
“The demand is tremendous for arts education because the schools have fallen down, honestly, with those education classes,” Morris said, noting that their locally funded Skagit Theater Camp scholarship programs were filled in just a few days. The theater is working to expand with even more educational performing arts opportunities.
The theater has become a third place for high school and community performances that would exceed capacity at a school auditorium, Gamson said.
Before Oates left Mount Vernon, her family’s hometown for generations, for college in 2017, she remembered her mother promising the city would get better someday. Upon returning five years later in 2021, Oates saw Mount Vernon renewed from businesses and work from local government and the Mount Vernon Downtown Association that saw exponential results.
“Now, all of a sudden, it’s a place that I am super proud to live in and to be involved with,” Oates said. “It’s a place that I love to bring my friends to and show them around, and there is just a lot more happening for lots more people than there ever was as a kid.”
Oates likes to rollerblade along the riverfront, visiting brew pubs or grabbing a pizza with friends.
“I’m fifth-generation in Skagit Valley — my great-great-grandpa owned a store downtown in the ’40s and my great-grandma lived in a different building down here in the ’50s and for me, that’s my family history that’s at stake” when working to revitalize downtown Mount Vernon, Oates said. “History tells a story and stories are really important to having your own identity in a place and so when people come here or live here, they know that they’re a part of something bigger.”
The Lincoln Theatre “means the heart of our small city and the pride of our small city,” Boudreau said. Opened in 1926 as a vaudeville and silent movie house, it “offers almost a nostalgia to that feeling of community that people get when (they) walk down the street. You can be super proud of supporting a small business.”
And as new development is on its way for the riverfront, history is of utmost importance.
Development with a sense of history
Activity, business, infrastructure and flood protection downtown have given the green light for development downtown, bringing actualization of Mount Vernon’s 2009 Master Plan that much closer.
The city began with constructing a $30 million floodwall along the riverfront to remove properties downtown from the 100-year floodplain, allowing building owners to renovate their buildings without triggering flood regulation and allowing new development to occur, Boudreau said. After the wall was completed in 2018, businesses could also save substantially on flood insurance rates, making thriving business more feasible downtown. The wall passed its first major test in 2021, when the Skagit River neared record flood levels, damaging nearby farms and killing livestock, but downtown was spared.
The second step of the three-part Master Plan is underway as well, providing infrastructure for future development with the Mount Vernon Library Commons.
That project will enhance density downtown with a public parking structure as the city is squeezed between Interstate 5 and the Skagit River, Boudreau said. The structure will also feature a library, community center and commercial kitchen with the three floors of parking above.
Morris expects to host conferences and presentations at the Lincoln Theatre for events coming through the library commons.
“We were thoughtful about making it attractive for investment,” and increasing activity downtown is one of several factors, Boudreau said. “If we didn’t do anything about the flood risk, we would never see any investment in downtown, same thing with our public park and our commons project.”
With the library commons set for completion in March 2024, waterfront development is nearing discussion, Boudreau said. The Master Plan calls for housing and hotels, but the City wants to refresh on the Master Plan before pre-development or agreements with any developers begin and hear input from the community.
“People are very concerned about the design and the look of what would occur, and they want it to match the historic downtown, or at least enhance the historic downtown,” Boudreau said. “That’s what we intend to provide.”
The Lincoln Theatre hopes to grow its membership to 2,000, which would bring in more money for more programming and building upgrades. In addition to campaigning for a new HVAC system, the theater is also working to show more films with themed curations, to feature social-commentary performances and to partner with other theater companies.
— Reported by Kai Uyehara