There is just something about a historic building that pulls at the soul. Something about the connection to the past, standing strong against our fast-moving future, that draws us in. And when that building has survived the same hardships as many of us – desertion, recessions, fire and even COVID-19 – it can stand as a beacon of hope that, we too, can survive. The historic Concrete Theatre is one such beacon, standing strong for almost a century thanks to loving owners and community support.
Since 1923, the Concrete Theatre has stood at 45920 Main Street in Concrete, but it had its start earlier than that. “There were also two other renditions of the theatre on the opposite side of the street,” shares Valerie Stafford, who owns the Theatre with Fred West. “Those both burned down around 1915-17.”
The first owner was C.D. Stickley. Since then, the Concrete Theatre has changed hands quite a bit. Stafford explains that over the decades, the Theatre, like many of us, has experienced some good times and bad times. It’s been closed and neglected along the way. “I don’t have the exact dates, but I’ve heard it was closed and condemned in the 1990s due to people living in it and setting the stage on fire,” she shares.
A small business with a rather large overhead, keeping a locally-owned movie theater alive is tough, no matter who the owners are. “Other owners/managers have had a difficult time financially keeping the business going,” Stafford continues. “Concrete’s demographics make it very hard for all small businesses, and movie theaters everywhere struggle making ends meet, largely due to the terms that movie studios set (they take a majority of the ticket sales). These days it costs about $300 to lease and show a movie for one weekend.”
A Passion for Entrepreneurship and a Caring Community Save the Concrete Theatre
Stafford and West are not rookies when it comes to owning small businesses. Previously they owned a scuba diving center on Whidbey Island, a yacht brokerage in Anacortes and a fitness studio in Oak Harbor. When they moved to Concrete, they knew that owning a business was still their passion. “We really like entrepreneurship,” Stafford shares. “When we moved to Concrete, we wanted to do something to help bring Town Center to life and offer the community entertainment options.”
So in 2009 they purchased the Concrete Theatre from a local who had owned it for a few years. Stafford says the previous owner had hoped to make it profitable, but had not been successful. But the old building still had life in her and it wasn’t time to give up just yet.
It took 10 months of hard, fast work to get her back up and running. “Luckily, the previous owner had already replaced the seating and some of the equipment was still in good shape,” Stafford shares. “Our job in the beginning was to create a nicer environment, by painting and refurbishing things.”
Like with most businesses trying to reopen—let alone a business trying to reopen in a semi-neglected historical building—they hit some snags over the years. It was then that Stafford and West saw just how caring the Concrete community was. Even though they are a private business, and not a nonprofit, the community has been generous in helping them keep the Concrete Theatre going. “It might seem odd that we’re accepting donations — or that people want to donate — but we learned that this community is very supportive,” Stafford shares. “In 2012 we needed to purchase a digital projector and actually had considered closing because we’d already invested about $50k into the theatre reopening. Community members and corporations stepped up to help. Within 8 months we’d raised more than $55k in donations! We were amazed. We’ve found that people really want to be part of keeping the theatre alive.”
And while COVID forced them to close just like every other theater, and even though many community members were hurting just as much as the theater, they banded together to continue to keep the place alive, and even move it toward a greater future. “Our long-term vision was to create an event center where the community could gather for meetings and special events, including classes, conferences, weddings, film festivals and more. Obviously, we needed more space to accommodate all that,” the owners wrote in their May 2021 proposal. “We’ve had our eye on the building next door for a long time – now we can put some of our ideas into action.”
That future includes Act One Ice Cream Parlor, part of an expansion that gives Stafford and West an additional 2,500-square-feet of space. The Parlor will have all your old-time favorites including hand-dipped cones, fresh waffle cones, sundaes and shakes, along with hand-crafted espresso drinks.
The new space will also mean a brand-new lobby and theater entrance for ticketing, and a relocated concession stand. They are also adding three new restrooms and a new room called Cinema Two that will have a 80-inch flat screen for special presentations and locally produced content.
From live entertainment and yoga classes to blockbuster movies and ice cream sodas, the Concrete Theatre’s revival is a lovely blend of the past and future, wrapped up in community connections. The Concrete Theatre is a visible sign of how strong the community is and proof that with love and support, we can survive anything.
To learn more, visit the Concrete Theatre website.