The North Park Theater in Buffalo, New York is a local landmark. With a single screen, 600 seats and ornate domed ceilings, it is an increasingly rare gem in a sea of multiplex cinemas.
“This is the kind of place you want to see a movie – you will forget the outside world and flee for a few hours,” said Ray Barker, the theater’s program director. He has been with North Park since the 1990s when he started as a concession worker.
North Park has been around for a century and has survived major economic shocks like the Great Depression and the Great Recession of 2008. When the Covid pandemic struck, it got dark and now a lifeline is urgently needed.
The theater awaiting a $ 200,000 grant applied for under the Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, Barker said. North Park reopened after the pandemic restrictions were lifted, but help is vital in lifting the landmark out of a mountain of debt accumulated last year.
“The bleeding hasn’t stopped in 13 months. This program should and has not helped us,” he said. The theater’s application has been filed, but for more than six weeks, Barker said he had not received a word about the status.
The SBA’s SVOG program, a $ 16 billion fund, was created to support the industry until personal entertainment can resume. Music clubs, theaters, event organizers, and more can receive grants of up to $ 10 million based on 2019 gross revenues under the program included in the second Covid Aid Package, which was signed in December.
The North Park Theater in Buffalo, New York is a historic movie theater that has been in business for a century. It is awaiting support from the SBA’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program.
The program’s application portal was messed with technology bugs and opened and closed within hours of its April 8 debut with no applications submitted. It reopened weeks later after an uproar over the delay, and applicants like Barker rushed to resubmit in hopes of earning a much-needed grant.
But now it’s time to wait for him and thousands of others. On Monday lunchtime, more than two months after the SVOG first launched, the SBA reported that 1,445 grants totaling $ 833.4 million had been awarded. The agency said in its weekly report that 7,118 applications are in the submitted phase and 5,853 are under consideration. The combined applications represent $ 11.6 billion in grants.
One of these applications is from the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Dave Bruno, the venue’s general manager, said he was eagerly awaiting news on the status of a $ 2 million grant application. He has heard that the SBA’s application is “being examined”, but has not yet said anything about funding.
Waiting delays on reopening plans
Like North Park, the Music Hall has a rich history, starting as a burlesque house and then a restaurant in the early 20th century. It was converted into a concert hall in the 1970s. The aid will help pay off debts, bring staff back and prepare for reopening later this summer, Bruno said.
“We could have reopened earlier if we had the money, but right now we’re lucky if we can open when we’re supposed to,” he said. “By asking us to wait longer, you are asking all of our employees to wait until they get back to work.”
Other Covid recovery programs, like the Paycheck Protection Program and the newer Restaurant Revitalization Fund, received funds within days of submitting the application.
At a Senate hearing in May, new SBA administrator Isabel Guzman testified that money from the SVOG program would soon be flowing to businesses in need, adding that the agency was in regular contact with stakeholders. She also admitted early technical difficulties with the application portal.
“We are processing these applications as quickly as possible. It is a very complex program by law with different types of facilities that has created many different admission requirements … and requires intensive applicant-to-applicant screening,” Guzman said.
In response to questions about issues and the speed of application approvals under the program, the agency said in a statement to CNBC: “We have [a] a dedicated team of hundreds of reviewers working around the clock to process, approve and withdraw funds as quickly as possible to get the country’s venues back on track. Not least due to legal requirements – created in the last administration – the applications require a detailed examination. To shed even more light on the matter, applicants have included 30 to 100 documents with their applications to ensure that they meet the guidelines of the statutes and that all must be checked before proceeding with the award process. “
The agency added that its current pace does not reflect the high standards that the SBA is aiming for.
A person familiar with the agency’s efforts said they were working with the White House and other agencies to provide additional resources to get grants quickly, but manually reviewing applications slowed the process. The team that worked on the Restaurant Revitalization Fund are now helping to manage the program, fraud controls have been streamlined and a new Navigator program is being implemented to assist with IRS review, this person said. The person requested anonymity as they were not allowed to speak on behalf of the SBA.
“Options are exhausted”
For proponents, the pace of funding is unacceptable. The National Independent Venue Association, which was formed during the pandemic to help independent operators survive, has urged the SBA to resolve their cross-agency issues and release all funds immediately. The group, which has around 3,000 members across the country and campaigned for the SVOG program, said the venues cannot reopen without help.
The Anthem Washington, DC venue pleading with the Small Business Administration to open up aid to closed independent venues.
Audrey Fix Schaefer, NIVA’s communications director, said there had been some changes in the past week and the agency had been more communicative over the past week, but the desperation among the applicants remained.
“The SBA is meant to help small businesses. Every day they don’t release that money, the corporations are helped,” said Fix Schaefer, who is also the director of communications for several independent venues in the Washington, DC area. “Our employees will go to them. … bands will go to them. It’s not just 2021, but for the next five to ten years.”
The venues need to bring workers back, settle debts and prepare to reopen, Fix Schaefer said. She explained that many operators have blown not only emergency aid but personal savings as well.
“These event venue operators have been without an income since March 2020. They have used up their savings. They put second mortgages on their homes. They have run out of their 401 (k) s and their children’s college funds on loans that they would normally never take out when they can, but they are exhausted – their options are exhausted, ”she said.
For workers and music lovers like Bruno, the past year has been a challenge both professionally and personally. Help cannot come soon enough.
“For someone like me and anyone who comes to shows and takes part in doing shows, this is our way of life. Our way of life is being stolen from us, ”he said of the pandemic’s impact on the live entertainment industry.
Back in Buffalo, Barker’s message is that the scholarship the theater needs is about a lot more than just keeping the business he runs running – it’s about the community.
“They don’t just watch a movie – they have a drink or coffee after the movie to talk about the movie,” he said. “That helps all these small businesses in the neighborhood. We’re kind of the tide that lifts all the boats, and when we’re not here people are drawn … then they are hurt. Everyone is connected in this economy.”