Local entrepreneur saves the Firehouse arts center as a community hub

BELLINGHAM, Wash.—March is a busy month at the Firehouse Arts and Events Center, with up to 20 events each week including ongoing classes in tai chi and qi gong, yoga, kung fu, ballet, modern and contemporary dance, meditation and wellness. In addition there are rehearsals for a dance competition,  a piano recital, a CD release performance, a singer-songwriter showcases, several open mics and community meetings.

“There are even more events coming in the spring and summer,” said Firehouse owner Teresa Dalton. “We are already getting reservations for 2020, which is great!”

Dalton, who purchased the Firehouse in early 2018, knew the arts and events center had long been a community asset, but she didn’t know how much of an asset until her Fairhaven neighborhood was in danger of losing it.

Founded in 2004 in a renovated 1920s-era fire house, the Firehouse Arts and Events Center had become a neighborhood institution where people could attend an exercise or dance class, enjoy a concert or other performance, or meet for coffee.

The property went up for sale in 2015, and at that point Dalton didn’t much care who bought it, as long as it remained a community gathering spot.

“It’s just this really cool little neighborhood thing,” she said, and she hoped it would stay that way.

FireHouse Cafe

In 2017 the property was still for sale, and rumors were circulating that the center might close and the property sold for other uses. That’s when Dalton decided to take a look for herself.

The previous owners, former professional dancers, had converted the 10,000 sf building into several offices, a small café and a dance studio/exercise room that can transform into a performance space with tiered seating for 84.

Dalton, who had previous experience as a commercial property owner, was charmed by the quirky building and before long she was calling up bankers to see about getting a loan to buy the building herself.

She approached five different banks, she said, and though they all wished her well, they all said no. “It was a huge risk and no one wanted to take the risk,” she said. “It would have been easier to tear the whole thing down build something new.”

The problem was that the Firehouse hadn’t shown much profit in years. For the previous owners, the center was a philanthropic mission, which was great for the community, but not for a prospective buyer who needed financing. Dalton saw the potential and she was sure she could change that, but the bankers wanted to see a solid business plan and she didn’t have one.

Finally, the loan officer at a local credit union said they might be able to do a deal, but she needed to talk to a business advisor and she strongly suggested the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Western Washington University. “Talk to the SBDC,” she remembers the loan officer saying, “They will do a business plan in the format we need to see.”

The Washington SBDC is a network of more than 30 business advisors who work in communities across the state to provide confidential, one-on-one, no-cost advising to entrepreneurs who want to start, grow or transition a business. SBDC services are funded in part by state institutions of higher education, local economic development agencies and civic organizations, and those contributions are matched by funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration. The SBDC center at WWU is the largest in the state, with four business advisors working with business owners across the region.

The loan officer was right and wrong, Dalton said. When all was said and done, she did have a well-researched, well-constructed business plan that was key to her getting financing. But the SBDC didn’t just give it to her, despite her asking.

In February 2018 Dalton began meeting with Sherri Daymon at the SBDC center in Bellingham. Daymon explained that SBDC advisors do not write business plans, but do provide assistance so that business owners can write their own plan.

When Daymon outlined some of the research she thought Dalton needed to do, Dalton pushed back. Is all this really necessary, she asked? “This up to you,” Daymon told her. “How bad to do want this place?”

Dalton said she realized she really did want the place, so she took the first step, and then the next. The research was eye-opening, she said. “The more work I put into it, the more committed I was to doing the next thing.”

The additional research allowed Dalton to come up with a plan to make the Firehouse Arts and Events Center profitable without raising rental fees, a goal Dalton felt strongly about. For instance, she opened up one of the interior offices so that she now has additional office space to rent, and she was able to repurpose another space for short-term stays, which has become a popular Airbnb rental. She worked with Daymon to create an expanded marketing plan to keep the center busy and she is working toward getting a beer and wine license which will allow the café to sell alcohol along with their light-fare food options during performances in the main space.

“It was a lot of work,” Dalton said, but in the end her business plan with three years of detailed financial projections was so strong that a private investor came forward and agreed to finance the purchase of the building.

“The business plan played a big part in all of this,” she said. “Doing all the research made me see potential I hadn’t thought of and I refer back to it quite often.”

Dalton said her business plan and financial projections are truly a road map for what she needs to do to ensure that the Firehouse Arts and Events Center will be a gathering spot for years to come.

Dalton said she has lost count how many times people have poked their head in her office—on their way to get coffee, go to a class or see a performance—to say thank you.

“Every day it is worth it,” she said, “absolutely every day.”

For more about the Firehouse Arts and Events Center, go to http://www.firehouseperformingarts.com/

For more about the SBDC at WWU, go to https://sbdc.wwu.edu/.