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Entertainment venues could finally apply for COVID-19 relief money. Then the website shut down.

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

Nearly four months after Congress approved coronavirus relief spending for long-suffering entertainment venues, the money is now available. But the pent-up demand was so fierce, including from Austin-area venues, that the Small Business Administration website crashed.

Among the venues seeking to tap into the $16 billion program are Antone's, the Long Center, the Zach Theatre and the Elephant Room. 

The grant program was championed by two part-time Austin residents: U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and signed by President Donald Trump in December.

The Blind Boys of Alabama, along with Ray Prim, perform during the Long Live Music socially distanced concert event hosted by Luck Reunion and The Long Center on April 4. The Long Center is among several venues applying for aid through a new coronavirus relief program. The program was supposed to begin accepting grant applications Thursday, but the website crashed.

COVID-19 relief website crashes

But the online system for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program was so overwhelmed by applications Thursday that its website crashed. The SBA closed the portal, and as of Friday afternoon it was still shuttered as the agency tried to fix it. SBA spokesperson Andrea Roebker said no applications went through and agency officials would announce a new launch date when the system is ready.

Williams, who is proud that the legislation he co-authored, first known as Save Our Stages, was bipartisan, is furious with the debut. “The SBA’s rollout . . . has been torturous for venue operators who were promised relief more than three months ago,” Williams said.

A Cornyn aide said Friday that the senator “wants this grant program to reopen for applications as soon as possible.” At a press conference Wednesday at Antone’s, Cornyn said live music venues were among the first businesses to close and would be among the last to reopen and that Congress “recognized the need was there to keep the jobs alive and the businesses alive, so that when we’ve got the virus in the rearview mirror, we could recover. We couldn’t do that without throwing a lifeline to the businesses, and the people who work at those businesses.”

But Williams is calling for a congressional investigation into the slow rollout of the program.

“Under the Biden administration the program has been plagued with delays and mismanagement at every juncture,” Williams said.

The Long Center has been holding outdoor concerts with social distancing.

Some Austin venues forced to reduce hours, staff

Elisbeth Challener, managing director of Zach Theatre, was not so harsh, even though she and her team were ready to go at the 11 a.m. Thursday start time, and kept trying to enter their information, conscious that the system of awarding the grants worked on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“We are waiting with bated breath to restart the submission process,” she told the Statesman. “We are cautiously optimistic.”

Since shutting down last March, the Zach complex of three indoor halls has held limited programs outdoors — including live musical performances — and online education programs.

“This is a lifeline for so many organizations,” said Challener. The Zach, which celebrates 100 years in operation this year, had to lay off 80% of its staff last year, she said.

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

The Zach arts complex is seeking about $2 million in federal funds that Challener said will go to rehire workers, pay actors for upcoming productions, make improvements to assure a clean theater space, such as install air filtration systems and pay for other operating costs.

The first indoor show is slated for late November — Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" musical — and, at the moment, the plan is to require guests to wear masks, depending on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

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

“We quickly pivoted to online,” she said, and to outdoor concerts with “pods” for up to four people, marked to be socially distant.

Officials at the performing arts center laid off 40% of the staff, and she said with the federal grant, “The hope is to restore the team as much as possible.”

Red River Cultural District loses nightclubs

Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District, which represented 12 clubs along Red River Street before the pandemic began, said their numbers have been whittled to nine with the closures of Barracuda, Plush and Scratchouse.

Red River venues Stubb’s and Empire Control Room have held limited outdoor shows during the pandemic, while others, such as the Mohawk and Cheer Up Charlies, have kept their doors shut throughout.

Cowan credits the National Independent Venue Alliance, which formed last year to coordinate action among U.S. venues, for helping Cornyn and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., get the shuttered venues legislation into the pandemic relief package.

Venue-assistance programs from the city of Austin helped to bridge the gap, Cowan said, though the city’s limited funds means that those programs “were kind of like spoons feeding water to a patient on their deathbed. That money has kept venues from dying straight out, but this (federal program) is the thing that will bring us off of life support.”

'A lot of paperwork'

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

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

She credits the Elephant Room’s owners, Jean-Pierre Vermaelen and David Chamberlain, for keeping the club afloat during the 13-month closure. “It’s been so commendable that they have been willing to stick with it and not just shut the doors,” she said. “They want to see it open back up, so they’ve stuck with it through the hard times.”

Mordecai said the owners are looking at possibly opening by May 18 “at the very earliest,” with the caveat that they’re continuing to watch the area’s COVID-19 numbers closely.

Many Austin venues hoping for return to normalcy

Joe Ables, who opened the Saxon Pub in South Austin in 1990, has kept the storied venue’s doors closed throughout the pandemic. His employees have been furloughed during that time. The Saxon Pub received some help recently from a city grant program administered by the Long Center, and from a fund run by the New York Live Music Society. 

The application process for the shuttered venues grants “has been very good for a government program,” Ables said. “I’m impressed with the detail they put into this.” He attended a couple of webinar sessions that helped him understand what information he needed to gather for the application.

"They want a statement of need,” he added. “The main thing they want is stability in the venue, so I think a lengthy history like ours is going to be helpful.”

Ables said he’s aiming to reopen the Saxon Pub on June 1, likely with renowned Austin guitarist David Grissom resuming his long-running Tuesday happy-hour residency. “We don’t know what to expect, businesswise,” he added. “I don’t know if people are never going to come out again, or what. But I’m hoping that six or seven weeks from now, we can be a regular venue again."