Theaters and venues for music are waiting for the support of the small-business government
The North Park Theatre in Buffalo, New York, is an iconic local landmark. It has only one screen and 600 seats and ornate domed ceilings it’s a rare treasure among the many multiplex cinemas.
“This is the kind of place you want to see a movie — you’re going to forget about the outside world and escape for a few hours,” said Ray Barker, the theater’s director of programming. He’s been with North Park since the 1990s when he began his career as a concessions worker.
North Park has been around for more than a century, having survived major economic crises such as those of the Great Depression and the 2008 Great Recession. As the Covid pandemic hit, it became dark, and it urgently needs a helpline.
The theater is waiting for a $200,000 grant they applied for through the Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program according to Barker. North Park has reopened as the restrictions on pandemics have been lifted, however, this aid is essential to free the theater from a pile of debt accrued over the past year.
“The bleeding isn’t stopping for over 13 months. The program was meant to assist us, but it hasn’t,” he said. The application for the theater was submitted however, for over 6 weeks Barker claimed he’d not received information on the status. Then, on Tuesday morning, the director learned from the SBA that the theater’s request was approved, with the next steps being taken however, it’s unclear when money will be deposited.
The SBA’s SVOG program, which is a $16 billion account, was established to support the business until live performances can resume. Theaters, music clubs as well as promoters have the option of receiving grants up to 10 million, which is based upon gross revenue for the year 2019 in the program. The program was part of the second Covid relief package approved in December.
The application portal for the program was plagued by technical glitches that shut down and opened just hours after its launch on April 8 with no applications being made. The portal reopened a few weeks later following protests about the delays, and applicants such as Barker eagerly resubmitted their applications hoping to receive the much-needed grant.
The waiting is over for his fellow applicants and thousands more. At midday on Monday, two months since the initial announcement of SVOG and the SBA announced that 1,445 grants have been granted for a total of $833.4 million. The SBA reported it was publishing a weekly update that 7118 requests are still in the submission phase and 5,853 applications are under examination. The requests total $11.6 billion worth of grants.
One of the applications comes that of one of them is from the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Dave Bruno, the venue’s general manager, has said that the venue is waiting with eagerness to hear about the status of the two million dollar grant application. He’s heard that the request has been placed “under review” by the SBA however, there is no confirmation yet on a grant.
Wait for delays in reopening plans
Similar to North Park, the music hall is a landmark in the history of the city that began at the beginning of the 1900s, as a bar and later became a restaurant. The hall was transformed into an auditorium during the 70s. This aid will allow the venue in paying off debts, rehire employees and get the venue ready to reopen at the end of summer, Bruno said.
“We could have been reopening sooner if we had the money, but right now it’s like we’ll be lucky to open when we’re scheduled to open,” said the manager declared. “By asking us to wait longer, you are asking all of our employees to wait to come back to work.”
With other Covid rehabilitation programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program and the more recent Restaurant Revitalization Fund, recipients received their funds within a matter of days of submitting their applications.
In a Senate session in May the new SBA administrator Isabel Guzman said that the money will be flowing to companies that require it through the SVOG program shortly and that SBA was in constant contact with the key stakeholders. Guzman also acknowledged that there were some technical issues in the application platform.
“We are evaluating those applications as swiftly as is possible. It’s a very complex program by statute, with various types of entities, which has created a lot of various eligibility requirements along the way … and requires intensive applicant-by-applicant review,” Guzman said.
In response to queries about concerns and the speed at which applications are approved in the framework of the program, the agency informed CNBC in its statement that “We have a dedicated team composed of reviewers from hundreds working all hours of the day to process approval and disburse money as fast as is possible to help get our national venues back in order. A large portion of that is due to the statutory requirements that were enacted during the previous Administration application process – applications must undergo thorough scrutiny. To shed clarity, applicants have provided between 30 and 100 pages of documents to make sure they meet the requirements of the statute. Each must be reviewed before being accepted to the grant award procedure.”
The agency said the current pace of operations doesn’t match the high standards that the SBA strives to achieve.
An individual who is familiar with the work of the agency confirmed that the agency works with the White House and other agencies to provide additional resources to make grants available swiftly, but a manual review of applications has slowed down the process. The team who worked for working on the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is now aiding in the administration of the program. The fraud control procedures have been improved and a brand new navigator program that assists in IRS verification is in place the person mentioned. The person who requested anonymity said they were not legally authorized for speaking on behalf on behalf of SBA.
“Options are exhausted”
For advocacy groups, the rate of funding is inexcusable. It is unacceptable. National Independent Venue Association, created during the pandemic to aid independent operators to survive in the face of the crisis, has asked the SBA to address the interagency problems and immediately release all funds. The association, which counts around 3,000 members across the nation and has lobbied on behalf of its SVOG program, has said that venues can’t reopen without help.
Audrey Fix Schaefer, NIVA’s communications director, stated that there have been recent changes to the organization and it has become more transparent over the past week, but the applicants’ plight is still there.
“The SBA is supposed to assist small-scale companies. Every day they don’t release the money, the conglomerates get assisted,” said Fix Schaefer who also serves as director of communications for various independent locations within the Washington, D.C., region. “Our employees will visit them. … The bands will be going to them. It’s not only 2021, it’s for in the coming five or 10 years.”
Venues must return workers to pay off debts, and plan for reopening, Fix Schaefer said. She explained that numerous operators have burnt through not just emergency assistance but also personal savings.
“These venues are without a source of revenue since March 2020. They’ve used up all their savings. They’ve put secondary mortgages onto their houses. They’ve used up their 401(k)s as well as their children’s college savings. They’re taking out a Quick Payday Loans Online they would not normally make when they could however, they’re exhausted and their options are exhausted” she explained.
For music enthusiasts and musicians like Bruno, the past year has been a challenging one both personally and professionally. The help can’t come fast enough.
“For people like me, and for everyone who attends shows and is involved in making shows happen, it’s a way of living. It’s like having our lifestyle taken away from our lives,” he said of the impact of the pandemic upon the entertainment business.
Then, back in Buffalo, The message of Barker is that the funding the theater is seeking is more than just maintaining the theater’s business operating. It’s about the entire community.
“They don’t just see a movie — they have a drink, or a post-movie coffee to talk about the film,” said the man explained. “That is a benefit to all these small-scale businesses that are in the area. We’re like a rising tide that lifts every boat and if we’re not at the forefront of attracting people to join us … and then they’re hurt. Everybody is connected in the current economic system.”