First came the sudden halt to every facet of their business. Then they spent eight months lobbying Congress for help. Then the relief applications website crashed for almost a month.
Now, 15 months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and two months since their applications finally went through, more than 100 nightclubs, concert halls, theaters and promotional companies across Minnesota are still waiting for grant money promised to them in a COVID-19 relief package Congress passed in December.
The stalemate is hindering plans to reopen for many of these spaces, even after COVID restrictions for live events have been eased.
"We made a lot of plans based on the assumption we'd be getting the [grant]," said Ward Johnson, co-owner of the Parkway Theatre in south Minneapolis, who hired back staffers and booked performers to prepare for a busy fall.
"The longer it takes, the more concerned we've become about the finances."
According to representatives from the Minnesota Independent Venue Alliance (MNIVA) — formed early this year to lobby state legislators for more relief — none of the businesses in the state that applied for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program have received an approval notice or dollar figure.
Nationally, only about 100 of the 14,000 applicants have received confirmation, according to a Variety magazine report last week. About $16 billion in grant money was approved in December as part of the so-called #SaveOurStages act, co-authored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Klobuchar, Cornyn and 52 other senators sent a letter Tuesday to the head of the Small Business Administration, which administers the program, stressing the urgency of the situation and requesting immediate steps to distribute funds.
"With each passing day, more independent businesses are forced to shutter permanently or file for bankruptcy. … Further delays are unacceptable."
That language was echoed by MNIVA President Shayna Melgaard: "The situation grows more dire with each delay."
Her organization has pressed for relief from the Minnesota Legislature. MNIVA earned bipartisan support from legislators in March for a state relief bill comparable to a $15 million package passed in Wisconsin. But the plan is still tied up in budget talks.
"This is increasingly important for Minnesotans — especially our legislators — to be aware of as they are still determining how to spend [American Rescue Plan] dollars that will come to Minnesota," Melgaard said. "Additional, one-time emergency relief for small businesses in our industry is still needed on a state level, even if our venues and promoters are approved for an SVOG."
At the Hennepin Theatre Trust, one of the biggest organizations in Minnesota to apply for federal relief, director of booking Lisa Krohn said federal Paycheck Protection Program money — along with "a great group of donors" and "excellent finance team" — helped keep 70% of the staff employed to work on a growing calendar for fall and beyond.
"So we are still very optimistic, and anxiously awaiting word on what we might get from the SVOG," Krohn said.
At many smaller companies, though, maintenance needs have been delayed and booking plans have been stymied. The Parkway, for instance, postponed plans to build a much-needed green room for performers while wrestling with day-to-day operations.
"We had no idea that five months later it would still be a question of when — or, worse yet, if — we were going to receive the SVOG funds," Johnson said.
Sacred Heart Music Center in Duluth, which already relied heavily on volunteers to stay in business, scaled back on its bookings for the rest of the year due to the delays.
"We typically like to offer a wide range of music, but … our current financial situation means we have to be more careful," said board member Mark Nicklawske. The historic venue has repair needs that are now on hold. A $20,000 fundraiser was held over the winter just to pay the heating bill.
"We're not optimistic about the federal funds. We're hoping we will be able to get something from the state."
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