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Delayed COVID-19 federal aid has some Spokane venue owners anxious about reopening

UPDATED: Mon., June 14, 2021

The Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, shown here on March 26, 2020, has been shut down because of COVID-19 virus concerns. Its owners, and other venue operators in the city, say they're anxious about getting federal relief dollars in-hand so they can start to reopen.   (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
The Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, shown here on March 26, 2020, has been shut down because of COVID-19 virus concerns. Its owners, and other venue operators in the city, say they're anxious about getting federal relief dollars in-hand so they can start to reopen.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

A new stadium might not be the only new attraction downtown. Prepare for a potential sculpture of Weiling Zhu in front of the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

When Zhu, the chief financial officer of the Spokane Symphony, applied for a Shuttered Venues Operator grant in April, she sent out a mind-bending 83 documents for consideration. Jeff vom Saal is justifiably impressed. The executive director of the Spokane Symphony and the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox can’t believe all the hoops Zhu jumped through for funding.

“We need to erect a statue of Weiling for her efforts,” vom Saal joked. “Weiling did a yeoman’s job for us in applying. I can’t believe all that she did. Enormous kudos for her. We really need the assistance.”

Vom Saal is among the many executives in the entertainment industry waiting on a cut of the $16 billion in federal grant aid Congress approved late last year to help clubs, theaters and other venues stay afloat after being devastated by the pandemic.

The good news is local venues will receive assistance. However, patience is required as disbursement of funds have slowed to a crawl.

“So far 50 applicants have received funds,” Spokane Comedy Club owner Adam Norwest said. “Not 50%, 50 applicants.”

More than 13,000 people applied in April for government aid. The request is for $11 billion of desperately needed relief. Shortly after the application portal opened two months ago, the computer system crashed.

“They’ve fallen behind,” Norwest said. “They know they’re dealing with a disaster. I just hope they get this going. We appreciate this since without it, it would be the Titanic for our business. We’re supposed to be in the next group, which means that we should receive something in June. We’ve done all that we can to put ourselves in position for the funding. We all need help from the smallest to the larger venues.”

Norwest is on the money. The need ranges from the 300-capacity Spokane Comedy Club to the 12,000-plus Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. The latter and the First Interstate Center for the Arts is in the third group to receive assistance, which is hoping for funds by July.

“The Shuttered Venue grant is huge for us,” Matt Meyer, the director of entertainment for the Spokane Arena and the First Interstate Center, said. “We lost $4.5 million last year. We’re hoping we get everything we put in for, which is $4.3 million. That almost brings us back to even. Getting the relief is very important. We’re refinancing a bunch of our bonds to give us some extra cash.”

While the venues look at the losses of 2020, the unfortunate reality is that stages have been dormant for almost all of the first half of this year.

“That’s true,” Meyer said. “That has set us back for more than $1 million. Times are tough for everyone in this business. We need the funds to get in place so we can have some stability.”

Once the grants land, the Spokane Arena and First Interstate Center can start hiring staff. “We’re looking forward to getting back to whatever normal is,” Meyer said.

Meyer isn’t just looking out for his own venues but smaller stages as well.

“I want to see the smaller clubs get their share in order to stay in operation,” Meyer said. “There’s a connection with our venues. Without those smaller venues, we don’t exist. Artists have to start somewhere. Bands start out in small clubs and then move into midsize venues before playing the Arena. We’re all in this together, trying to come out of this incredibly dire situation. Being in the third group, we’re going to have to wait a little longer, but it’ll be worth the wait.”

Jerry Dicker, who owns the Bing Crosby Theater, is waiting but not worrying.

“Ninety-five percent is from our own resources,” Dicker said when discussing keeping the Bing going. “All the operational cost is covered by my wife and myself.”

Each of the aforementioned venues should be fine. The small venues are in jeopardy.

Karli Ingersoll, who owns the Lucky You Lounge, should be among the first group to receive aid but has yet to see a dime.

“There’s no news,” Ingersoll said.

Ingersoll is understandably upset by the Small Business Administration, which is slowly processing applications for aid. The SBA hired 500 reviewers for the SVOG program. If each reviewer analyzed one application a day, 17,000 applications would have been processed by Wednesday, which was the last day of the 14-day priority period.

Those who were to receive priority are applicants experiencing greater than 90% revenue loss. Nearly 5,000 business owners, including Ingersoll, are among the first group to be compensated but it’s uncertain when they will receive their share of funds appropriated by Congress.

Ingersoll isn’t expounding on the subject but she passed along a recently crafted note from the National Independent Venue Association to Congress, which reflects how she feels.

“Sadly, the help Congress secured for us by enacting the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant (SVOG) program has yet to arrive. While the rest of the country begins reopening, our businesses cannot reopen – not because of COVID-19 – but because we are still waiting on emergency relief from the SBA to provide us with working capital to hire back employees, pay back rent, put deposits on bands and productions, order food and beverage to serve patrons, among other necessary costs of reopening. … We are past our breaking point. We can’t hang on any longer. We want to participate in America’s economic recovery, but our venues can’t afford to reopen our businesses. We have no funds left.”

“I hope they speed this up,” vom Saal said. “There are venues in dire need. We’re all waiting for something to come in.”

The Symphony and the Fox should receive funds sooner than later since they are in the second group to be compensated.

“It’s a big deal,” vom Saal said. “We applied for about $1.5 million. Does that solve all of our problems? No, but it will help us dramatically.

“Even though we’ve been through a very difficult period, we have much to be thankful for,” he continued. “We’re very thankful for our donors, who have been great. They’ve done so much to help keep us going. Without our donors, we would be further up the creek. All venues need help and we need it as soon as possible.”

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