Demand for COVID reduction for leisure venues shuts down web site

By Maria Recio and Peter Blackstock, Austin American-Statesman, USA TODAY NETWORK

Almost four months after Congress approved spending on coronavirus aid to suffering entertainment venues, the money is now available. However, the pent-up demand was so great that the Small Business Administration website crashed, including from venues in the Austin area.

Venues looking to take advantage of the $ 16 billion program include Antone’s, the Long Center, the Zach Theater, and the Elephant Room.

The scholarship program was supported by two part-time Austin residents: US Representative Roger Williams (R-Austin) and US Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) and signed by President Donald Trump in December.

COVID-19 help website crashes

However, the online system for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program was so overwhelmed with applications on Thursday that the website crashed. The SBA closed the portal and was still closed on Friday afternoon when the agency tried to fix the problem. SBA spokeswoman Andrea Roebker said no applications had been received and agency officials would announce a new launch date when the system is ready.

Williams, who prides himself on the fact that the legislation he co-authored, which was first known as Save Our Stages, was non-partisan, is angry with the debut. “The rollout of the SBA. . . was torture for event organizers promised relief more than three months ago, ”Williams said.

A Cornyn official said Friday that the senator “wants this grant program to be reopened to filings as soon as possible.” Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday at Antone, Cornyn said that live music venues are among the first to close and one of the last to reopen, and that Congress “recognized the need to save jobs and businesses to keep alive so that when we got the virus in the rearview mirror, we could restore it. We couldn’t do this without throwing a lifeline to the companies and the people who work in those companies. “

But Williams is calling for a Congressional investigation into the program’s slow roll out.

“Under the Biden administration, the program has been fraught with delays and mismanagement at all times,” said Williams.

Some Austin venues have been forced to reduce hours

Elisbeth Challener, General Manager of the Zach Theater, was not that tough, even though she and her team were ready to start at 11 a.m. on Thursday and continued to try to enter their information as they were aware that the grants system was working a first- Come first serve basis.

“We are waiting with bated breath to resume the filing process,” she told the statesman. “We are cautiously optimistic.”

Since its closure last March, the Zach Complex, which has three indoor lounges, has had limited outdoor programs – including live music performances – and online educational programs.

“This is a lifeline for so many companies,” said Challener. The Zach, who is celebrating his 100th anniversary this year, had to lay off 80% of his employees last year, she said.

The SBA program is structured to provide grants based on 45% of a venue’s pre-pandemic 2019 revenue, giving priority to venues that have lost 90% of revenue. The maximum grant amount for a single venue is $ 10 million.

The Zach Art Complex is looking for about $ 2 million federal funding, which Challener says will be used to reinstall workers, pay actors for upcoming productions, make improvements to keep the theater space clean, e.g. B. Install air filter systems and pay other operating costs.

The first indoor show is scheduled for late November – Charles Dickens’ musical “A Christmas Carol” – and currently there are plans to require guests to wear masks, depending on guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the Long Center, Chief Executive Officer Cory Baker fondly remembers the last performance of Harry Connick Jr. over a year ago before he had to shut down.

“We quickly switched to online,” she said, and to outdoor concerts with “pods” for up to four people who were considered socially distant.

Performing Arts Center officials laid off 40% of the staff and she said with the federal scholarship, “The hope is to restore the team as much as possible.”

The Red River Cultural District is losing nightclubs

Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District, who represented 12 clubs along Red River Street before the pandemic began, said their number had dropped to nine with the closure of Barracuda, Plush and Scratchouse.

Red River venues, Stubb’s and Empire Control Room, held limited outdoor shows during the pandemic, while others, like Mohawk and Cheer Up Charlies, closed their doors all the time.

Cowan credits the National Independent Venue Alliance, which was formed last year to coordinate action between U.S. venues to help Cornyn and Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Pass legislation on closed venues in the pandemic – Help package included.

Cowan said that Austin city support programs helped fill this void, although the city’s limited resources mean these programs were “like spoons pouring water on a patient on their deathbed. That money stopped the venues from dying instantly, but this (federal program) is what will turn us away from life support. “

“Lots of paperwork”

Laura Mordecai and her husband Mike Mordecai own the BBA Management & Booking and the record label Fable. BBA booked the downtown jazz club the Elephant Room for three decades, and Laura Mordecai has spent much of her time in recent weeks gathering the venue’s records for the closed venue application.

“It’s a lot of paperwork,” she said. “Most of it is pretty straightforward, so it’s just about doing it. They want to see that you are a legitimate music venue and I’m glad they do, but it’s a lot of documentation. “

She credits the owners of the Elephant Room, Jean-Pierre Vermaelen and David Chamberlain, for keeping the club afloat during its 13-month closure. “It was so commendable that they were willing to hold on to it and not just close the doors,” she said. “They want it to open up again, so they got through the tough times.”

Mordecai said owners might “open” until May 18 at the earliest, with the caveat that they continue to closely monitor the area’s COVID-19 numbers.

Many Austin venues are hoping for a return to normal

Joe Ables, who opened the Saxon Pub in South Austin in 1990, kept the doors of the famous venue closed during the pandemic. His employees were on leave during this time. The Saxon Pub recently received help from a Long Center-administered city scholarship program and a fund from the New York Live Music Society.

The application process for the closed venue grants “was very good for a government program,” Ables said. “I’m impressed with the detail you put into this.” He attended a few webinar sessions where he understood what information he needed to gather in order to apply.

“They want a declaration of need,” he added. “The main thing they want is the stability of the venue. I think a long story like ours will help.”

Ables said he intends to reopen the Saxon Pub on June 1, likely with noted Austin guitarist David Grissom, who is resuming his longstanding happy hour residency on Tuesday. “We don’t know what to expect in business,” he added. “I don’t know if people will never come out or what. But I hope that in six or seven weeks we can be a regular venue again. “