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‘The impact has just been massive’: Spokane venues call on Congress to rescue live events industry with stalled legislation

The Martin Woldson Theather at the Fox promotes Red Alert Spokane on Tuesday on its marquee in downtown Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The Martin Woldson Theather at the Fox promotes Red Alert Spokane on Tuesday on its marquee in downtown Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane event venues were awash in red light Tuesday as part of a nationwide campaign to call on Congress to provide a lifeline to a live events industry that has been decimated by COVID-19.

The #RedAlertRESTART campaign, organized by a coalition of entertainment-sector businesses and workers, lit venues including the Spokane Arena, the Knitting Factory and the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox in support of the RESTART Act, a bipartisan bill that has languished since being introduced in the Senate in May.

“The event industry has been one of the hardest-hit sectors of our economy,” said Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox General Manager Brian Ritter. “We were one of the first to be shut down, and we’re likely to be the last to reopen.”

The legislation would expand eligibility for forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans to event venues, many of which did not qualify for the aid under the existing rules of the PPP program, which expired in August with more than $130 billion in unclaimed funds remaining.

Lawmakers left the Capitol for their summer recess in early August without passing another round of pandemic relief spending, blowing past deadlines including the Aug. 8 PPP expiration and the end of a federal eviction freeze and $600-a-week enhanced unemployment benefits July 31.

Now the events industry, whose revenue dropped to essentially zero when states restricted public gatherings in March, is warning that it can’t afford more inaction from Congress.

“This industry generates about $1 trillion in the United States,” Ritter said, “and we have to protect the employees that make this industry a possibility. Without additional relief, a good number of venues will not survive this pandemic.”

For some venues, it’s already too late. The Pin, a staple of the Spokane music scene, closed in August with its owner citing “the current state of the world and the unpredictable time before we would be allowed to open our doors again.”

Sheryl Stone, a producer and talent buyer at Spokane’s Bing Crosby Theater, said uncertainty about the pandemic’s timeline makes it hard for venues to make reopening plans until the virus is under control.

“Me personally – and I’m a concertgoer – I’d be hesitant to sit in a crowded theater without some sort of a treatment available,” Stone said.

The Senate bill already has 53 cosponsors – more than enough to pass – with roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. The equivalent legislation in the House also has support from across the political spectrum.

The bill’s fixes would help more than just event venues, giving borrowers more flexibility in how funds can be used and forgiving up to 90% of loans based on lost revenue.

Yet despite that broad support, congressional leaders never brought the bill to the floor of either chamber for a vote before adjourning for their summer break, focusing instead on another comprehensive coronavirus relief package.

Negotiators from the two parties butted heads for weeks over starkly different visions for that package. House Democrats passed a $3 trillion spending bill in May, effectively their opening bid, but GOP leaders balked at that price tag and didn’t unveil their roughly $1 trillion counteroffer until late July.

“It was incredibly frustrating,” said Jessica Deri, director of sales and marketing at the Spokane Convention Center. “For (Congress) to just take time off and not even consider the workers was very disheartening.”

The Spokane Convention Center has lost 130 events since the pandemic began, according to a news release from the Spokane Public Facilities District, with a total economic impact of nearly $59 million on hotels, restaurants and other businesses that benefit from those events in normal times.

“I think the events industry in general is in a pretty dire situation,” Deri said. “I think that we are an industry that people don’t understand in good times, so it’s very hard to explain the impact that we have now.”

The Spokane Public Facilities District estimates the closure of its buildings – which include the convention center, the Spokane Arena and the First Interstate Center for the Arts – has resulted in $6.7 million in lost revenue and impacted more than 29,000 jobs in the area. The Arena was set to host first- and second-round the NCAA basketball tournament games until COVID-19 shut down sports events across the country.

Matt Meyer, director of entertainment at the Spokane Arena and First Interstate Center, said those cancellations triggered a “domino effect” of events postponed through 2021 and into 2022.

“The impact has just been massive,” Meyer said. “We have hundreds of employees that aren’t employed right now, and so it’s a huge impact on everybody, and from there it trickles down to all of the local businesses downtown.”

The Public Facilities District did not qualify for PPP loans, but some of the private companies it contracts with did.

Deri said more than 1,000 of those contractors’ employees have lost their jobs.

The Senate will return Monday from its summer break, with the House coming back to the Capitol a week later. Democratic and GOP leaders are expected to resume pandemic relief negotiations, but venue operators hope they return with a greater sense of urgency.

“My heart is bleeding for all of the people affected by this,” Stone said.

“It’s the musicians, the artists, the techs, everything. It’s heartbreaking, and Congress should be doing something.”


Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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