The coronavirus pandemic has been compared to many disasters, but Tuesday U.S. Sen. John Cornyn called trillion-dollar federal aid appropriations something he never imagined he’d see outside of “World War III.”
Of those trillions, $16 billion in federal funding has been approved for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, the result of the Save Our Stages (SOS) Act co-authored by Cornyn (R-Texas) and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) to close a loophole in prior federal aid that had not specifically addressed the needs of live performance venues.
“Many of our entertainment venues were the first to shut down because of mitigation efforts and will be among the last open,” Cornyn told members of the media gathered Tuesday morning at Jazz, TX in the Pearl complex.
Cornyn met with San Antonio venue operators and managers of performing arts groups to hear of their pandemic struggles and how the SOS Act has helped them prevent the closures and layoffs they said likely would have occurred without direct aid.
“We were were this close to closing our doors,” said Catalina Garza, director of the Quenedit Dance Theatre and Ballet School, “so I’m very thankful for everything that the government’s doing. This is huge for us.”
Quenedit received its funds June 21 in the amount of $37,755. Santikos Theatres CEO Tim Handren said that after losing an estimated $50 million in revenue for 2020, the movie theater chain received the $10 million it applied for less than a week after being notified in mid-June that the application was accepted.
However, other venues are still waiting. Manager Daniel Rosen of Floore’s Country Store, a live music venue in Helotes, said the business applied immediately but hasn’t yet heard whether it will receive funds.
“It’s under review, so we’ll see,” Rosen said.
The program was approved in January, but has been beset with challenges since April 8, when applications were supposed to open. That day, the online application system failed, and venue owners waited weeks for it to restart.
“It’s been bumpy. I’ve been frustrated,” Cornyn said, while acknowledging that the Small Business Administration, which administers the grant program, has had to “start from scratch, and that’s harder than you might think.
“I wish things would move a little faster, because time is of the essence. These businesses are holding on by the skin of their teeth. Some of them aren’t coming back.”
Cornyn highlighted the success of Jazz, TX owner Doc Watkins, who because live performance was impossible in the venue’s enclosed basement space at the Pearl, initiated a regular livestream performance series in August 2020.
Financially, the series was a “disaster,” Watkins said, but it allowed Jazz, TX to stay connected to its audience.
“It was a huge success in terms of just bringing music to the community, expanding our reach. Then when we opened our doors, people remembered us and they wanted to come out because we kept them entertained during the pandemic,” he said.
Jazz, TX received $744,836 from the grant program.
Watkins pointed out that the type of venue played a large role in its ability to maintain any semblance of financial stability during the period of closures and reduced capacity. Floore’s Country Store was helped in part by having a large outdoor area, and Garrett T. Capps, musician and co-owner of The Lonesome Rose on the St. Mary’s Strip, said having a large backyard allowed the honky tonk to maintain some revenue. Under the program, The Lonesome Rose was classified as having lost 25% of its revenue in 2020 as compared to 2019, giving it a lower priority for receiving funds than other venues with steeper losses.
The Magik Theatre has suffered while operating at 30% capacity since reopening in December, and its programming caters to children, who aren’t yet eligible for vaccinations.
The $468,459 in SVOG funds received by the Magik, along with help from local charitable foundations, will allow the theater to continue operations with 90% of its staff until it reopens fully in the fall, said CEO Frank Villani.
“If it wasn’t for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant that we got, I don’t know how we would have done it,” Villani said.
Rosen summed up what the SOS Act and SVOG grant program, which is open for applications through 2021, has meant to Floore’s Country Store, which bills itself as the oldest dance hall in Texas. “To keep these kind of cultural historic institutions alive and operating is really important,” he said.