Astoria is emblematic of many communities in the region that are changing rapidly.


As development increases, so does the potential for gentrification. Gentrification is a term that describes what happens when low-cost, often run-down neighborhoods undergo renovation.


On one hand, gentrification can be a positive urban influence, transforming dilapidated neighborhoods into high value properties, infusing municipalities with additional tax dollars, and improving the look and feel of an area.


But such economic transformation also sometimes displaces existing businesses and residents, changing a neighborhood's original character.


In Astoria's Uniontown area, gentrification may be underway.




Shanghaied by gentrification?


The Astor St. Opry Company has produced the community theater favorite "Shanghaied in Astoria," performed weekends every summer for the past 23 years.


The campy musical review humorously recounts aspects of Astoria's to some extent shady maritime history. The show has become a local tradition and sold-out performances are common.



For the past seven years the company has occupied the old Finnish Meat Market building on W. Marine Drive.


But this summer will be their last in the building. This spring, owner Bill Cook sold the old meat market, and the theater has to move.


Judy Niland is on the Astor St. Opry Company's board of directors. She's helped produce the play for 22 of the 23 years the show has been in existence.


She said the volunteer theater company operates on a shoestring budget.


"When we started the Astor St. Opry Company, we had free rent," she said. "People wanted their space occupied."


But things have changed a lot in recent years. The Opry Company can stay in their current digs until Oct. 15. After that, new owners will begin renovating the building. If the theater group doesn't find another home soon, this summer's run could be their swan song.




Theatrical irony on Marine Drive


There's a strange irony in the Astor St. Opry Company's dilemma that gets deeper the more it is explored.


That's because the new owner of the Finnish Meat Market is not some allegorical, fiendishly wealthy out-of-town buyer.


Instead it's a local husband and wife team who are themselves well-known supporters of the arts in Astoria, people who have put their time, money and hearts into community theater.


Tim Hurd and Nancy Montgomery own Columbia River Coffee Roasters, a local business currently based in Astoria near the old Young's Bay Bridge. The coffee company ran out of room in its old facility. Their company slogan is: "The Coffee That Floats the Arts."


Montgomery and Hurd also founded The River Theater, located across the street on W. Marine Drive from the Finnish Meat Market, in what was also once a rundown building that no one wanted.


Lots of volunteer elbow grease, and funding from Montgomery and Hurd, turned it into a popular black box theater that has hosted hundreds of music and theater performances since it was founded in 1998.


Their purchase of the Finnish Meat Market building came after their own plans fell through to expand their business and give The River Theater a permanent home. But it meant displacing old friends who share their community vision.


"We thought, 'Oh great, the coffee that floats the arts kicks out Shanghaied,'" Hurd said ruefully.


This paradoxical turn of events certainly wasn't the original plan. Hurd and Montgomery had intended to build a new building on the Astoria Riverwalk that would house the coffee company and the theater in the same facility.


"We hoped that would work out, but the cost of construction just kept going up," Hurd said. "Finally we took a heavy loss and terminated the lease."



Hurd and Montgomery will house their coffee roasting business in the Finnish Meat Market building, along with a new retail store. They'll start restoring the historic building this fall. But another wrinkle has developed that also puts the theater they founded at risk.


As it stands now, The River Theater's lease is up in the summer of 2008, and owner Blue Heron Hotel Properties, LLC, which also owns Holiday Inn Express, has other plans for the property and won't renew. So The River Theater will soon be homeless as well.


"The cost of property and construction has just passed us by," Hurd said.




What's next for community theater in Astoria?


Niland said the two theater companies are considering any and all options, including possibly combining forces to find one large facility that would house them both.


"We don't want to cause any harm," Hurd said. "We're working to help them."


Niland is concerned that fans of Shanghaied don't realize how tenuous the situation is for both theaters.


"We've always had an image of self-sufficiency, and people don't realize what goes on behind the scenes," she said, looking back on decades of performances. "We have helped build this town into a cultural destination."


Both the Astor St. Opry Company and The River Theater are looking for long-term leases they can afford as low-budget non-profits.


"Whoever works with us has to be flexible," Niland said.


"It's a matter of inspiring the right person," Hurd "We want people to know that we are not asking for a freebie."


With time running out for both theaters, Niland, Mongomery and Hurd are optimistic they'll find space to continue their community theater work. But grim possibilities loom.


"If Shanghaied misses a year it likely won't come back," Niland said. "You lose volunteers, sponsors. Other commitments take its place, board members move on."


"This isn't smoke," Hurd agreed. "This could be it for both theater companies if we can't find a place."


If Shanghaied and The River Theater fade into obscurity, the loss will leave the city with no community theater venue for the first time in almost a quarter of a century.