Stone Church

Robin Johnson, owner of the Stone Church in Brattleboro, is part of a national effort to get aid to venues.

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A program to help places that put on live events was created in December but has yet to give out a dime.

It won’t be long and people will be clamoring to check out a live show. But will they be able to find one?

The response to COVID-19 has caused many performance venues to shut down for good, while those that live on struggle as the pandemic enters its second year.

Help was supposed to be on the way by now in the form of a federal relief program. But four months after its approval, the program has yet to distribute a dime.

That’s bad news for these venues, and for the communities that rely on them to provide entertainment and art, to attract visitors, and to support jobs.

Take for example the Ogunquit Playhouse, one of Maine’s top performing arts centers and a link to the wonderful history of summer stock theatre.

The Playhouse each year brings top-notch talent to southern Maine, yet last year, unable to put on shows, it lost more than $8 million in ticket sales, executive director Bradford Kenny told MainePublic this week. Some of those funds would have otherwise gone to its year-round staff.

“This is how these folks feed their families and pay their rents and their mortgages,” Kenny said.

Besides providing jobs, places like the Ogunquit Playhouse also help other local businesses pay their bills, spending on local vendors and drawing people in for a night out, leading them to go to nearby to shop, eat or have a drink.

Besides filling prominent spaces and creating buzz, small, locally run performance venues are often the only one in their community doing what they do.

For many, they may be the only place nearby featuring a live band or a show.

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And these venues are part of nationwide chain that allows smaller acts to tour throughout the country. If too many close, the chain loses valuable links, and everyone will have fewer choices for entertainment.

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, passed by Congress in December as part of the Save Our Stages Act, could help these venues — the ones that have survived, anyway — come out the other end of the pandemic.

Robin Johnson, owner of the Stone Church concert venue in Brattleboro, was part of the Save Our Stages campaign that advocated for the aid. Johnson and the Stone Church were even featured in an ABC News segment about the campaign.

The $16 billion program allows grants of up to $10 million for live music venues, independent theaters and other live-event spaces.

But the application site crashed last week shortly after opening and has yet to come back online. The Small Business Administration said its goal is to reopen the portal by the end of this week.

The federal government has approved trillions of dollars in spending to fight COVID across a series of relief packages.

But it has struggled to get a significant portion of that funding out the door.

That’s not entirely surprising. A lot of the funds, including the grants for performance venues, are being distributed through brand-new programs that must be built from scratch.

That’s a challenge, but it’s one that has to be overcome.

The money does no good just sitting there, and the venues cannot wait forever to find out if they are going to survive long enough to put on another show.

Portland Press Herald, April 16