The North Park Theater in Buffalo, New York is a local landmark. With a single screen, 600 seats and ornate vaulted ceilings, it is an increasingly rare gem in a sea of multiplex cinemas.
“This is the kind of place where you want to see a movie — you’re going to forget the outside world and escape for a few hours,” said Ray Barker, the theater’s program director. He has been with North Park since the 1990s, when he started out as a concession worker.
North Park has been around for a century, surviving major economic shocks such as the Great Depression and Great Recession of 2008. When the Covid pandemic hit, it went dark and now it desperately needs a lifeline.
The theater is waiting for a $200,000 grant it has applied for under the Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, Barker said. North Park has reopened after pandemic restrictions were lifted, but help is critical to dig the monument out of a mountain of debt that has accumulated over the past year.
“The bleeding hasn’t stopped for 13 months. This program was supposed to help us, and it hasn’t,” he said. The theater’s application has been filed, but for more than six weeks, Barker said he hadn’t heard anything about its status. On Tuesday, he learned from the SBA that the theater’s application has been approved, with next steps, but it is not yet clear when funding will be received.
The SBA’s $16 billion SVOG program was created to support the industry until personal entertainment can resume. Music clubs, theaters, promoters and more can access grants of as much as $10 million, based on 2019 gross revenue, as part of the program, which was included in the second Covid relief package signed in December.
The program’s application portal was throttled by technological issues, opening and closing within hours of its debut on April 8, with no applications being submitted. It reopened weeks later after an uproar over the delay, and applicants like Barker rushed to reapply in hopes of getting a much-needed grant.
But now it is waiting for him and thousands of others. On Monday afternoon, more than two months after the SVOG’s initial launch, the SBA reported that 1,445 grants had been awarded totaling $833.4 million. The agency said in its weekly report that 7,118 applications remain in the submitted phase and 5,853 are pending. The combined requests represent $11.6 billion in grants.
One of those applications is from the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Dave Bruno, the site’s general manager, said he is eagerly awaiting news about the status of a $2 million grant request. He’s heard the application is “under review” by the SBA, but no word on funding yet.
Like North Park, the music hall has a rich history, starting as a burlesque house in the early 1900s and then a restaurant. It was redesigned as a concert hall in the 1970s. The aid will help pay off debt, bring back workers and prepare for reopening later this summer, Bruno said.
“We could have reopened earlier if we had the money, but right now it’s like we’ll be lucky enough to open when we’re scheduled to open,” he said. “By asking us to wait longer, you’re asking all our employees to wait to get back to work.”
In other Covid recovery programs, such as the Paycheck Protection Program and the more recent Restaurant Revitalization Fund, recipients received money within days of applying.
During a Senate hearing in May, new SBA administrator Isabel Guzman testified that money from the SVOG program would soon flow to businesses in need, adding that the agency communicated regularly with stakeholders. She also acknowledged early technical issues with the application portal.
“We process those applications as quickly as possible. It’s a very complex program by statute, with different types of entities, which has created many different eligibility requirements along the way…and requires an intensive assessment of the applicant per applicant,” Guzman said.
In response to questions about issues and the speed of application approvals under the program, the agency told CNBC in a statement: “We have [a] dedicated team of hundreds of reviewers working around the clock to process, approve and disburse funds as quickly as possible to get the country’s venues back on track. In large part because of legal requirements – created in the last administration – the applications require an extensive examination. To further shed some light, applicants have included anywhere from 30 to 100 documents in their application to ensure they meet the statute’s guidelines and that each need is assessed before proceeding with the grant award process.”
The agency added that the current pace does not match the high standards the SBA is aiming for.
An individual familiar with the agency’s efforts said it is working with the White House and other agencies to allocate additional resources to get grants quickly, but manual review of applications has slowed the process. The team that worked on the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is now helping to administer the program, fraud monitoring has been optimized and a new navigation program is being implemented to assist with IRS verification, this individual said. The person requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the SBA.
For lawyers, the pace of funding is unacceptable. The National Independent Venue Association, created during the pandemic to help independent operators survive, has called on the SBA to resolve the inter-agency issues and release all funds immediately. The group, which has some 3,000 members across the country and lobbied for the SVOG program, said the sites cannot reopen without help.
Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director at NIVA, says some changes have been made over the past week and the agency has been more communicative over the past week, but the desperation among applicants remains.
“The SBA is supposed to help small businesses. Every day they don’t release that money, the conglomerates are helped,” said Fix Schaefer, who is also a communications director for several independent locations in the Washington, DC area. “Our employees are going to them. … Bands are going to them. It’s not just 2021, it’s for the next five to 10 years.”
Locations need to bring employees back, pay off debt and prepare to reopen, Fix Schaefer said. She explained that many operators have consumed not only emergency aid but also personal savings.
“These location operators have had no income as of March 2020. They have used up their savings. They have put second mortgages on their homes. They have used up their 401(k)s and their children’s college tuition. They take out loans that they normally would never would take if they can, but they’re 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 can’t come soon enough.
“For someone like me, and everyone who comes to shows and participates in the making of shows, it’s our way of life. It’s that our way of life is being taken from us,” he said of the pandemic’s impact on the world. live entertainment industry.
Back in Buffalo, Barker’s message is that the grant the theater needs is much more than just running the business it runs — it’s about the community.
“They don’t just see a movie — they have a drink or coffee after the movie to talk about the movie,” he said. “That helps all these small businesses around. We’re kind of like the rising tide that’s lifting all the boats, and if we’re not here to pull people in…they get hurt. Everyone’s interconnected in this economy.”