Waiting on Aid: Pablo Among Thousands of Venues Hoping for Slow-Moving Federal Dollars
the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant became law in December, but funds have only trickled out of Washington
The Pablo Center at the Confluence and its executive director, Jason Jon Anderson, were at the vanguard of pushing for federal aid for entertainment venues that were forced to close last year by the COVID-19 pandemic. Anderson and his staff joined forces with colleagues from around the state and nation to advocate for what was originally dubbed the Save Our Stages Act, a bipartisan bill designed to help keep closed venues afloat, which was introduced in Congress last July.
One year later, the Pablo Center and thousands of other entertainment venues around the country are still waiting for federal funding to arrive. While other federal assistance programs – such as one for restaurants – were put in place later, they issued grants more swiftly. By contrast, although it was signed into law last December, only a trickle of funding has come from what is now known as the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant.
“We’re in June, and the dollars are just starting to roll out for a program that was going to be a lifeline a year ago,” Anderson said in a recent interview. He estimates that the Pablo Center is eligible for $900,000 – and potentially an additional $450,000 – through the SVOG.
We won’t count the cash until we receive it, but it’s vital to our reopening this fall.
JASON JON ANDERSON
PABLO CENTER AT THE CONFLUENCE
“We won’t count the cash until we receive it, but it’s vital to our reopening this fall,” Anderson said. The Pablo Center, which has been closed for in-person performances since March 2020, is scheduled to launch an ambitious fourth season in September, which includes more than 400 events. (See more about the coming season here.)
As of June 21, the U.S. Small Business Administration, which oversees the SVOG, had only issued $833 million in grants out of $11.6 billion requested. While more than 14,000 applications had been submitted, only 1,445 grants had been awarded.
A week later, as of June 28, the figures had risen somewhat: 2,390 grants worth a total of $1.5 billion had been awarded.
Anderson said as many as 40% of applicants have been declined. “I have confidence in our application,” he said, “but I just can’t tell why others have been declined, which makes me apprehensive.”
The SVOG appears to be the victim of slow-moving Washington bureaucracy. For one thing, while it was passed during the waning days of the Trump administration, it was left to the incoming Biden administration to implement. There were reportedly technological glitches in April when the SBA began accepting applications. Furthermore, the SBA initially treated the SVOG as a competitive grant program, rather than as a disaster relief program, as it was intended, Anderson said.
The program’s delays have raised the hackles of members of Congress, who have prodded the SBA to pick up the pace. It’s also drawn cries from venue operators. As one theater program director in Buffalo, New York, recently told CNBC: “The bleeding has not stopped for 13 months. This program was supposed to help us, and it has not.”
Nonetheless, Anderson is optimistic that the federal assistance will come through. The SBA has promised it would alert up to 10,000 awardees by July 4.
STATE AID ANNOUNCED
Meanwhile, another source of aid could be coming to the Pablo Center in the near future as well. On June 24, Gov. Tony Evers announced that the state of Wisconsin would be making more than $140 million in grants to entertainment and tourism-related businesses and organizations. The grants will include $10 million for live venues, as well as $11.25 million for movie theaters. The funds are part of the American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March. While the dollars are from the federal government, they will be administered by the Wisconsin Department of Administration and the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.
Joel Brennan, secretary of the Department of Administration, spoke to reporters June 24 about the funding during a visit to Eau Claire that included stops at the Micon Downtown Budget Cinema and the Pablo Center.
“We’re starting to see things re-emerge,” Brennan said at the Budget Cinema, which – except for a brief period last summer – has been closed for the duration of the pandemic. “Some of the areas, like this theater we’re in today, are some of the things that are going to be slower, and we need to invest in those things and make sure that we’re investing in the recovery with these federal dollars.”
Brennan promised an application process for eligible businesses and organizations will begin soon, and ideally grants will be made by the end of the summer.
Anderson said he believes the Pablo Center will receive $100,000 through the new state grant program. (The organization could be eligible for more, but the amount they receive will likely be capped, he said.) Last year, the Pablo Center received approximately $500,000 through two similar state grant programs, one for cultural arts organizations and the other for live entertainment venues.