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City distributes $1.34M in venue assistance, with more funding on the way

Friday, January 15, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

The city has awarded $1.34 million in assistance to live music venues that have been mostly or entirely closed since March, with another round of city funds available and billions in federal assistance on the way soon.

As of this week, the first round of $20,000 grants from the Music Venue Preservation Fund has been delivered to 69 music venues around the city. In total $5 million has been committed from the General Fund – not from the federal CARES Act in the spring – to help small businesses that were forced to close with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The next round of city funding, an additional $140,000, will be available to recipients of the first round. Those dollars will more than likely be used for repaying rent for the businesses, which in Austin average $35,000 per month in lease costs.

Second-round recipients will need to complete a technical assistance evaluation to help owners build stronger businesses. They will also need to create an equity strategic plan, with the assistance of a city-provided consultant, to bring greater diversity and opportunity to the city’s live music scene.

Veronica Briseño, the city’s chief economic recovery officer, said the assistance program, which was created in the fall following large public demonstrations by music advocates, said the city wanted to see long-term stability and improvement around equity issues tied to the larger round of funding.

“This was the first time we were administering emergency grants and then coming back with longer-term relief and a relationship with the entity,” she said. “It’s a way to help our music venues in their immediate need to give them some breathing room while we do an evaluation on next steps for long-term relief.”

Briseño said the city will be heavily involved with helping to inform venue owners about how to apply for money from the federal Save Our Stages program, which was approved late last year and will provide $15 billion to help music venues across the country.

“The benefit of that program is it hasn’t been rationed out by region and so the money is available until there’s none left,” she said. “So we really want to make sure our live music venues are educated on how to apply for those funds. Because Austin per capita has more live music venues than most U.S. cities, we want to make sure that is reflected in how those funds are distributed.”

Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District, said most long-idle venues have been able to hold on to their spaces thanks to landlords willing to wait for the long-expected federal aid package. With large-scale touring and concerts not expected to resume until late 2021 at the earliest, he said the venues are working on creating three- to five-year repayment plans and looking at how to run their businesses profitably as soon as possible.

“Most venues’ landlords are looking at the worm on the end of the hook for federal stimulus,” he said. “A lot of landlords are renegotiating leases and now that we’re 10 months in it feels like more people are realistic about where the horizon on this is. It’s not today or tomorrow and we don’t know that it is going to be this year.”

Cowan said the steps to provide more professional business assistance to grant recipients is a well-intended move by the city since most of those business owners are likely unfamiliar with bankruptcy laws and debt restructuring, or how to secure the best lease terms possible.

But he also backed criticism of city leaders who held off for close to a year on directing CARES money to the city’s signature economic sector.

“I think this shows the city was less resilient and they were doing triage first and foremost, caring for people to keep them eating and not getting evicted first and foremost. Governments aren’t built to operate like Ferraris … that shows there’s some things to work on as far as city infrastructure and nimbleness,” he said. “I understand people were doing what they could with limited time and resources, but from a music advocacy standpoint it’s hard to understand why it took until October for the brand of the city to be recognized and for small business to be recognized.”

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