Arts & Culture News

Theater and Venue Owners Optimistic But Cautious About Stimulus Bill for Show Spaces

The Kessler's artistic director Jeff Liles with director of operations Diana Cox photographed for the Bring Music Home project.
The Kessler's artistic director Jeff Liles with director of operations Diana Cox photographed for the Bring Music Home project. Cory Cameron
Live entertainment has taken one of the hardest hits from the coronavirus outbreak. A survey conducted by the National Independent Venue Association last June revealed that 90 percent of the nation's entertainment venue owners said they may have to close without more federal funding to replace their disappearing revenue.

It's taken more than a few months, but some help is finally on the way.

The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, which Congress passed Monday, includes $15 billion in special relief just for live entertainment venues and movie theaters that have lost revenue because of closings caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a summary of the bill from the U.S. House Appropriations Committee.

The bill authorizes the release of $15 billion in grants to the Small Business Administration (SBA) to disburse the funds to "eligible live venue operators or promotors, theatrical producers, live performing arts organization operators, museum operators, motion picture theatre operations or talent representatives," according to the bill's summary.

The money obtained through the SBA can be used for "expenses such as payroll costs, rent, utilities and personal protective equipment."

The "eligible" part refers to guidelines the venues and businesses must meet in order to qualify for a grant of up to $10 million. The entity applying for the grant must have experienced a minimum loss of 90 percent of its revenue during the first two weeks of grant applications. The loss requirement drops to 70 percent following the two-week implementation period.

The special funding section for entertainment venues in the stimulus bill that's headed to the White House for President Donald Trump's signature comes from a separate piece of legislation introduced in June called the "Save Our Stages" (SOS) act. Texas Sen. John Cornyn and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobucher sponsored the bill that's been co-signed by 59 Republican and Democratic senators and included in the latest bill that passed on Monday, according to congressional records.

The owners and operators of Dallas-area venues and concert halls welcome the help but still expressed their caution about its effects and effectiveness as they comb through the bill's legal jargon. 

"Fortunately and ironically, we will have no problem demonstrating the loss of revenue needed to qualify." – Jeff Vance, Pocket Sandwich Theatre

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"I looked over it and am cautiously optimistic," says Jeff Vance, one of the partners of the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, which just closed a smaller than usual run of holiday shows. "The bill limits money to independent venues and smaller chains which bodes well for us. "Fortunately and ironically, we will have no problem demonstrating the loss of revenue needed to qualify."

Edwin Cabaniss, the founder of The Kessler and owner of its parent company, Kessler Presents, says he and other Texas venue owners have been in constant communication. He co-founded the Texas chapter of the Music Venue Alliance after the coronavirus outbreak to help urge state and federal leaders to help concert halls and theaters stay in business during the shutdown and shape the Save Our Stages bill.

"The [Paycheck Protection Program] was a lifesaver for a lot of businesses, but if you look at the way they styled it, it was only for 10 weeks," Cabaniss says. "Like a lot of us during the shutdown in mid-March, we rolled our shows to July and August. Then we started figuring out this was gonna take a little bit longer."

Corey Hyden, the founder and owner of the Free Play Arcade chain, says many businesses like his planned on additional stimulus aid in June but had to wait seven months for this latest round of economic aid.

"After being told more help was coming in June, I think many owners took extreme steps in order to keep their businesses alive on the hope that some sort of assistance would come. Then there was a constant chorus of 'more help is coming' as summer became fall and fall crept into winter. I know dozens of bar and restaurant owners who have dipped deep into their savings, taken out second mortgages and drained their retirement funds in order to keep their staff paid because they thought help was imminent."

The frustration over the political football that stimulus legislation turned into since the summer is understandable but Cabaniss says he's hopeful this new bill will provide the aid that local venues and theaters need.

"It's not a Band-Aid," Cabaniss says. "It's not trying to get us through the next two weeks. It's trying to get us back to whole from where we were until we get out of this. I'm cautiously optimistic we could be back to a sense of normalcy by fall. This is really needed, and I wish it would have come sooner and saved some more venues, but it's done now, and I'm glad it's going to save some venues, the ones that are left staying."

Hyden says he hopes the stimulus and the advancements in the new COVID-19 vaccines will help customers get back to going out again soon.

"Assuming all goes well with the stimulus and vaccine rollout, I think everyone in the industry is extremely hopeful that we see quickly rebounding crowds and can get back to some sense of safety and normalcy," Hyden says. "I don't know many owners in our industry who can take another year like this." 
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.