Concert, theater owners call pandemic relief fund efforts ‘disaster’

Photo by John Shore / Courtesy of IMP: Unlike other companies that might downsize or pivot to delivery, theaters and concert halls, like the 9:30 Washington Club here, have been completely shut down by the pandemic. A $ 16 billion relief program that was supposed to help these businesses got off to a catastrophic start, and site operators say it left them in desperate need of help.

Through Brooke Newman/ News from Cronkite

PHOENIX – Arizona business owners have said a federal program to help theaters and concert halls shut down by COVID-19 “has been a disaster,” taking until this month to deliver the first grants from a fund that was approved last year.

So far, only one Arizona company has received a grant from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, a $ 16 billion fund administered by the Small Business Administration.

And Arizona is not alone: ​​since last Wednesday, the SBA had approved just 90 of the 14,020 applications he received for the fund and distributed $ 127.9 million, money that business owners said was “desperately needed five months ago.”

“We’re all trying to rebuild, and if that money doesn’t start flowing, the businesses won’t come back,” said Bonnie Schock, executive director of the Fox Tucson Theater.

The program was plagued by problems early on. Critics said that when the SBA started accepting applications on April 8, the online portal crashed and it took another two weeks for the agency to start accepting applications again.

When it began reviewing applications on May 4, the SBA set a goal of reviewing all “top priority” applications – companies that reported losing 90% or more of their revenue over the course of the year. the past year – by June 9. But as of Wednesday, the agency had approved less than 1% of applications, had thousands under review and 9,269 more that have yet to be reviewed for the first time.

“They missed a single deadline they set for themselves,” said Stephen Chilton, owner of The Rebel Lounge in Phoenix and vice president of the National Independent Venues Association.

Its organization joined six others who wrote to SBA administrator Isabella Guzman on Thursday, demanding that the agency “immediately fund all eligible entities and immediately address interagency issues that have proven to be a barrier to funding the deeply suffering SVOG applicants.”

“The SBA, whose sole purpose is to help small businesses, shows a lack of urgency and capacity to deliver this desperately needed emergency relief program,” said Jennifer Grogan, member of NIVA . “The SBA’s delay is actually dragging businesses down.”

Chilton said in the meantime, operators of sites in Arizona have had to take drastic measures to stay afloat.

“The reason all the sites haven’t closed is because they’re doing things they wouldn’t normally do to stay in business, like selling cars and taking out mortgages,” he said. he declares.

Requests for comment were not immediately returned by SBA officials, who instead indicated that the agency wednesday report on the progress of the program.

Of the 90 approved applicants, 65 were performing arts organizations or theater operators, 19 were theater operators, four were talent representatives and two were theater producers. The awards went to companies in 32 states, most of them in California, where 16 nominees totaled more than $ 20 million.

The program foresees that $ 2 billion will be set aside for companies with 50 workers or less. About half of the total awarded so far has gone to small businesses, which accounted for 79 of the 90 recipients.

The SBA has not released the names of the winners, just numbers. Arizona’s lone recipient received just over $ 2.5 million, nearly double the national average price of $ 1.42 million.

Representative Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, said in a letter Wednesday to Guzman that he was “in disbelief that nearly six months” after the program was approved, so few nominations were awarded.

“Today, a theater operator in my district wrote to me, ‘We are past our breaking point. We can’t hang on anymore, ”adding that only one site in Arizona received help,” Stanton wrote. “Please tell me, what are my constituents supposed to do who are about to shut down their businesses forever?” “

Photo by PaulAnn Egelhoff / Courtesy Rebel Lounge: Steve Chilton, of the Rebel Lounge in Phoenix, said he was only able to book around 75 shows at various venues last year before the concerts closed of COVID-19.

Schock said that unlike other businesses hit hard by the pandemic, theaters and concert halls do not have the option of delivering take-out or opening at limited capacity. Live entertainment businesses have been “100% closed for 15 months.”

She said the Fox Tucson Theater is a historic nonprofit that has managed to stay afloat thanks to generous donors who help fund operating costs of around $ 50,000 per month. But other sites don’t have that luxury, Schock said, with no capital to pay for their monthly expenses.

Schock said the SBA’s delay in releasing funds is confusing for an industry that has been “completely crippled” and is “vital to our communities.”

“These funds were meant to save our businesses, and here we are six months later and no dollars are flowing,” she said. “We have to have a solution, and we have to have it now, or we will lose these businesses that are vital to our communities.”

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