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City expands money, eligibility for creative space assistance

Thursday, March 7, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The city has nearly quadrupled its funding and expanded accessibility for a 2017 pilot program to assist creative spaces at risk of closing due to rising rents or maintenance issues.

The Creative Space Assistance Program has more than $750,000 available to a mix of for-profit and nonprofit businesses that can apply for up to $50,000. The allocations can be used for rent stipends, facilities improvements to bring a property up to code, revenue-generating improvements, or a professional analysis in readiness for moving to a new venue.

The increase from the pilot program’s $200,000 budget was made possible by City Council approving $400,000 in this year’s budget and the addition of funding from existing Economic Development Department programs. The pilot program was well received and helped 12 nonprofit arts groups including Conspirare, Austin School of Film and Pump Project make much-needed improvements or cover some of their monthly rent.

Perhaps the biggest change in the program is its expansion to make for-profit businesses eligible to apply for funding.

Erica Shamaly, director of the city’s Music and Entertainment Division, said that change was made for existing music venues that contribute to the city’s culture and economy and face the same economic pressures as other arts groups, but are organized as traditional for-profit businesses.

“As we were talking, we decided this would be great if it were something we could do for for-profit businesses, because a lot of us don’t understand just how razor-thin those margins are when it comes to making money, especially for live music venues,” she said. “We know there are so many spaces that are in imminent danger of losing their space. We don’t know if this will recur next year, but all we can do is do what we can this year. It’s very unusual to have this kind of opportunity so it’s going to be an educational process to see how we can move the needle and help these groups.”

The application process opened Monday and closes April 30. A five-member panel will decide how to split up the funding and announce recipients in May, with the money expected to be given out by July.

Previous recipients are eligible to reapply, but the review panel will weigh funding history with the goal of helping new entrants as much as possible.

Meghan Wells, manager of the city’s Cultural Arts Division, said the cultural value of music venues and other for-profit businesses made it possible to convince the city’s legal department that expanding the program to new recipients made sense. Doing so meant establishing a clear definition of what kinds of money-making businesses would qualify, with the creative space and music venue land use definitions from the scrapped CodeNEXT process providing the needed framework.

“We’ve been hearing how the ecosystem has been affected by the space crisis and the number of groups that have been displaced are a combination of for-profit or nonprofits,” Wells said. “There’s a whole bunch of folks that have the same financial situation going on with regard to their business model, and so they’re looking at where they may be able to leverage resources just like a nonprofit.”

Recipients will need to demonstrate the economic development impact that can be generated by the improvements or rental assistance, with training available through the city’s Small Biz Austin education program to help them improve their business prospects.

“When we walked through this with legal, it’s all about the public good and making sure that these things stay open regardless of if they’re for-profit or nonprofit,” Shamaly said. “They agreed that this is justified to provide funding so we don’t lose these organizations.”

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