The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times.
Our region’s community of concert halls, nightclubs and theaters went dark a year ago as performers, employees and patrons hunkered down with the rest of us. These venues that have nurtured the Pacific Northwest’s world-class live entertainment culture are due for federal survival assistance. Such help can help them reach post-pandemic reopening nights, for the good of all of us.
A grant program backed by Washington U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell can help performances spaces nationwide regain footing. But the $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grants in federal COVID-19 relief legislation failed to launch April 8 due to website difficulties. A fix for the Small Business Administration’s technical issues is urgently needed before more venues go permanently silent.
Washington has more than 200 small and mid-sized independent entertainment venues and movie theaters that could benefit. Their crowds have gone away, but rent payments and other costs remain for community treasures from The Shakedown in Bellingham to the Lucky You Lounge in Spokane.
The Grand Cinema in Tacoma closed in March 2020 and furloughed its staff, then used federal Paycheck Protection Program money to cover workers’ health insurance. Philip Cowan, the theater’s executive director, said he has been unable to learn when the Shuttered Venue grants might be available. He worries the first-come, first-serve money will drain fast.
“It’s been a mess, to be honest,” Cowan said at an online town hall hosted by Cantwell. “It’s taken a long time to get this going, and the information coming out of the SBA has been all over the place.”
The regional benefit isn’t confined only to sustaining the Pacific Northwest’s important entertainment venues — although that is welcome. When community spread of COVID-19 subsides, the joy of joining an audience for a concert or play, of laughing at an actor’s joke or nodding along to a familiar bass line, will provide a deeply needed lift for weary spirits.
The economic aspects are important, too. According to Cantwell’s office, Washington’s 135 independent venues, which can entertain audiences of up to 2,000 people, employ 3,000 workers and generate $785 million in annual economic activity. As those spaces host performances again, they can boost recovery in other sectors. Each will need time to build back.
“We book artists six months to a year out, so this money is fantastic,” said Steven Severin, a co-owner of Seattle’s Neumos rock club. “It’s going to get us further down the road, but it’s not going to, by any means, make us whole. We’re not going to be back to where we were.”
The runway for recovery is long, and the systems supplying help should be regarded as necessary infrastructure for future economic resilience. The SBA’s Shuttered Venue grants are the latest in a long list of government efforts, state and federal, that have initially faltered to cope with immense demand for COVID-19 economic relief.
With the end of the pandemic in sight, standing up this rescue effort for a precarious and vital sector should be a high priority. Washington residents will soon need destination venues again.