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Arts, Sports & Culture

$16 Billion Program To Aid Shuttered Entertainment Venues Hits Technical Roadblock

Photo by Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
The Roxian Theater, in McKees Rocks, is among the many Pittsburgh venues shuttered by the pandemic.

A federal program to help entertainment venues shut down by the coronavirus pandemic has hit its own unexpected snag.

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant promises $16.2 billion to theaters, concert halls, movie houses, promoters and other businesses and non-profits that lost revenue during the pandemic – that is, pretty much all of them. The grant program was originally signed into law in December, then amended as part of the American Rescue plan signed by President Biden in March.

The program is run by the Small Business Administration, and its online application portal opened April 8. But within hours, the SBA had deactivated the portal, citing technical problems.

One applicant was Pittsburgh-based concert promoter Drusky Entertainment. Owner Brian Drusky said it was difficult even to register on the site, let alone to upload required supporting documentation. He said others in the industry had the same experience. “No one could finish the application,” he said.

Eleven days later, the site was still down.

“There are $16 billion to help people but when zero of that’s been paid and not one person has been able to get any help," said Drusky. "It’s frustrating to a lot of people."

Most in-person entertainment in Pittsburgh and elsewhere has been dormant since March 2020, affecting venues from non-profit theater companies to chain movie houses. Especially hard-hit have been independent concert halls, which rely on ticket sales for all their income. Several in Pittsburgh have closed permanently, including the Rex Theater and brillobox.

The venues that remain have been counting on that money in discussions with landlords and other creditors, said Drusky Entertainment’s Adam Valen. Under the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, eligible applicants could seek grants equal to 45% of their gross earned revenue for 2019, and up to $10 million for a single grant.

“They’re planning on this money, and the fact that the program was supposed to go up on the 8th and didn’t really hampered a lot of those conversations,” said Valen, a leader in Pittsburgh’s chapter of the National Independent Venue Association. The trade group formed during the pandemic to advocate for programs like the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant.

Other NIVA members in Pittsburgh include promoters like Opus One Productions and venues including: the Roxian Theatre, in McKees Rocks; the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, in Carnegie; Club Café, in the South Side; Spirit, in Lawrenceville; and Mr. Roboto Project, in Bloomfield.

Messages on the SBA’s website and Twitter feed as of Monday afternoon acknowledged the technical difficulties and said the administration hoped to reopen the application portal by the end of this week.

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