It’s been about six months since Congress passed the $16.1 billion Save Our Stages Act into law, but that doesn’t mean that independent venues across the country have been able to access any of those funds. According to a coalition of advocacy groups for the country’s various independent arts operators, less than 100 venues of the more than 14,000 who applied have actually received any funds.
According to a report released this week by the Small Business Administration, which distributes the Small Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) loans, there have been 14,020 applications requesting funding totaling around $11.4 billion. Of those, there are 4,661 currently in review, which are considered the most in need—places which suffered 90% or more revenue losses during the pandemic—as part of the first priority period.
The SBA was supposed to have reviewed all of those 4,661 priority applications by this past Wednesday, but only 90 of those have been awarded the funds, and of those 90, only 48 have been live venues. According to the report, the government has released $127 million from that $11.4 billion pot of money.
The SVOG program provides eligible movie theaters, live venue operators and promoters, talent representatives, and performing arts organizations with grants equal to 45% of their 2019 gross earned revenue, up to a maximum of $10 million.
According to the National Independent Venue Association, the SBA’s “repeated errors and delays have endangered the very businesses and organizations the program was designed to help.”
In a letter to Congress this week, NIVA wrote, “We are past our breaking point. We can’t hang on any longer. We want to participate in America’s economic recovery, but our venues can’t afford to re-open our businesses…The SBA, whose sole purpose is to help small businesses, is demonstrating a lack of urgency and ability to execute this desperately needed emergency relief program. The SBA’s delay is actually driving more of our small businesses under – all while the $16 billion in emergency funding waits to be administered.”
The advocacy groups say this isn’t a matter of resources: over 500 reviewers have been assigned to the program, and if they reviewed one application per day since the application portal opened in April, approximately 14,000 applications submitted could have been processed by now.
“We couldn’t be more grateful that Congress saw fit to provide $16 billion to Save Our Stages, but this untenable wait for the emergency relief has been torturous and damaging to our industry, our employees, and our communities,” NIVA board member and communications director Audrey Fix Schaefer told Gothamist.
The program has been plagued by a lot of technical problems, starting from its very launch: the SVOG application portal opened on April 8th, immediately crashed, and was closed. It wasn’t reopened until April 26th.
In addition, many venue owners have run into issues with 4506-T tax forms and “Death Match Files”—some owners received notices from the SBA that they were deceased and ineligible for funds despite being very much alive.
Kambri Crews, owner of Q.E.D. Astoria and a member of NIVA’s New York chapter, told Gothamist the process has added a new layer of stress to an already-exhausting period.
“I had to send receipts of buying spotlights when Q.E.D. first opened to prove it’s a venue,” she said of the process, which has included sending an extreme amount of paperwork to prove her place is real. “You could also, I don’t know, Google us? You’d have to do a lot of work to put up a fake venue. We clearly have reviews online. It shouldn’t be this hard, it’s an emergency.”
Crews is particularly frustrated because pandemic programs for other industries, like the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, have been able to move quickly to help people while venues remain stuck in limbo. “The Restaurant Fund was approved, funded, and ran out of money in a really short period while we waited. I know they need help as well, but they were allowed to open—we were forced to be closed for 13 months. So it’s been maddening, absolutely maddening.”
So many folks acting like QED has survived. Nope we’re just enjoying the protections of the eviction moratorium as we wait for relief and I hang on by a thread with mounting debt and stress I couldn’t have imagined. #saveourstages https://t.co/0PaPpl7HUL
— Kambri Crews (@kambri) June 11, 2021
“We didn’t receive any notice yet and are anxiously waiting to hear from the SBA on the progress of our application,” Doreen Cugno, president & CEO of The St. George Theater on Staten Island, told Gothamist. Her venue canceled or postponed well over 130 shows since closing on March 12, 2020, and won’t officially reopen until October.
Cugno added that she has heard that the SBA has begun responding to the complaints, which gives her reason for optimism.
Sources tell Gothamist that changes have already begun to happen behind-the-scenes: The person leading the SVOG has been replaced by people that led the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, and they are adding more application reviewers to the team. Officials have promised that they are dealing with the glitches that have slowed down the process. And insiders expect there to be an immediate ramp up in approvals starting next week.
“We’re so lucky to have Senator Schumer as our champion because he and his office have been fully engaged in the efforts to get the emergency funding flowing,” NIVA’s Fix Schaefer added. “They understand the situation is desperate and they’re on it.”
But in the meantime, owners like Crews are not out of the woods yet. She’s waiting to see if a new bill, sponsored by State Senator Michael Gianaris, will pass to protect personal liability in the event of default of certain commercial leases in New York because of COVID guidelines. And she’s just trying to move forward with her club reopening despite all the uncertainty.
“I feel like I’m walking into somebody’s party and taking a big dump on the floor,” she said. “I’m supposed to be welcoming people back into this fun comedy space, and people are saying they’re so happy Q.E.D. survived, and I’m like, survived? I’m still in this, we haven’t survived anything. We’re still treading water.”