As a leading advocate for pandemic relief for the music industry, Tom DeGeorge was happy to see the passage of a federal grant program to help those businesses get through the desperate days of 2020.
Shuttered Venue Operator Grants, as they came to be known, would give $16 billion to entertainment venues nationwide to help with rent, salaries and other lost business, right when that devastated industry needed it most.
What DeGeorge didn’t count on was the grants taking another seven or eight months to roll out.
“I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” said the owner of Crowbar in Ybor City, which got $278,697. “I’m happy we were able to get done what we got done. It’s just unfortunate it took so long. Because a lot of people just couldn’t hold on.”
Given the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Florida, the struggles may not be over. Artists that mapped out Florida tours are suddenly backing off of those plans. Crowbar has already seen one concert cancellation this month, and is bracing for more this fall.
“This money — and I’ve told a lot of people this — don’t spend it yet,” DeGeorge said. “Because it was supposed to be to get us through what we already went through. But if we miss another whole freaking season of music, it’s going to be tough.”
The Shuttered Venue Operator Grants were one of two major federal programs — the other was the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund — that promised grants of up to $10 million for restaurants, bars, concert venues, promoters, theaters, movie houses, museums and other attractions that saw revenues nosedive during the pandemic.
In the last few weeks, that aid finally started rolling into Tampa Bay. About $323 million from those programs has been disbursed locally, according to U.S. Small Business Administration data, with millions more likely coming. That’s on top of the thousands, and in some cases millions, that many of these businesses already received in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans.
But COVID-19′s Delta variant, and the effect it’s having in Florida, has stirred concerns that all that aid might not be enough.
“Florida is really Florida-ing the s--t out of this,” said David Jenkins, artistic director of Tampa’s Jobsite Theatre, which drew good crowds for its summer production of Shockheaded Peter, but has since seen ticket sales plummet. “Audiences are not going to come back in the way that we just saw with Shockheaded Peter. This is me personally speaking: I do not feel safe doing the things I felt doing a month ago.”
Restaurants, bars and other hospitality businesses got much of the grant money. Through Aug. 17, more than 1,200 entities in the Tampa Bay region — encompassing Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties — received at least $217.1 million from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
Top recipients included $5 million for Wesley Chapel’s Saddlebrook Resort (which already got $4.9 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans); $2.3 million for Tampa pub and eatery chain Irish 31 (whose affiliate companies got 14 loans worth nearly $3 million); and $1.7 million for Bascom’s Chop House in Clearwater (which got $776,677 in loans).
On the other end of the spectrum are smaller organizations that are still struggling.
One of the smallest local grant recipients was Thyme and Bloom, a health and wellness market in Tampa. Owner Joy Haskins got a Paycheck Protection Program worth $2,446, and was counting on more from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. But because the grant formula factors in the value of previous federal loans, Haskins got only $1,138.35.
“I was thinking I would get around $5,000. That would be a really life-changing amount for someone like me,” Haskins said. “I was kind of in disbelief that I would only be getting about $1,000, which didn’t even cover a month’s rent at my store. It was really upsetting.”
This month, Haskins moved out of her storefront on W Waters Ave. She’ll soon relocate to a subleased space alongside other businesses.
“I know some people were able to use different funds to pivot their business in some way to support the changes of being online, or no-contact delivery, or whatever,” she said. “But I wasn’t able to invest in any of those kinds of changes, because I was trying to keep the lights on.”
Some food businesses got less than expected partly because of the overwhelming demand for grant money.
The Restaurant Revitalization Fund program had a pot of $28.6 billion, but collectively, the grant’s applicants asked for up to $75 billion, said Althea Harris, acting deputy director of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s South Florida district. Some were weeded out, denied or downsized, she said, but overall, the funds went to those who needed them most.
“I’m very proud of the work we’ve been doing at SBA to get this money out to those businesses,” said Harris. “We’re fortunate to be in Florida, where our economy has been largely open.”
On the Shuttered Venue side, more than 110 Tampa Bay businesses got grants, ranging from $10 million for Palmetto’s Feld Entertainment, producer of such events as Monster Jam and Disney On Ice, to $4,884 for St. Petersburg dance concert producers Open House Conspiracy.
After getting two Paycheck Protection Program loans worth about $24,000, Jobsite Theatre got a Shuttered Venue grant for $77,333. About half of that went out the door “pretty instantaneously,” said Jenkins, the group’s artistic director, mostly to repay artists and contractors who hadn’t been fully compensated during the pandemic.
Jobsite’s finances look fairly solid for the coming season, Jenkins said, even if ticket sales are “100 percent dead in the water.” But he knows other venues and companies aren’t feeling so stable.
“My friends in the music industry, this is just killing them,” Jenkins said. “So many shows are already canceling in the last couple of weeks in Florida. People are choosing not to make good on their tours into the Southeast, but Florida in general is really bad.”
There is hope for some small venues to get a little more aid. Unlike the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant program did not run out of money during the first go-around, only distributing about $8.4 billion. This month, the Small Business Administration will begin accepting applications for supplemental grants worth up to 50 percent of the original award amount, with an overall cap of $10 million. The administration will also hear appeals from businesses who got denied, or were awarded less than they thought they should get.
Still, given the current climate of uncertainty, DeGeorge said, “people have to be very, very smart” about how they spend what they get.
“If we don’t get these numbers under control, no touring bands are going to want to come down here,” DeGeorge said. “I’m hoping more people get vaccinated and we can maintain some of these shows in the fall and the winter. But right now, with the way things are, I think we’re going to lose a lot of artists.”
Top Tampa Bay recipients
Here are the Tampa Bay organizations that got the largest Restaurant Revitalization Fund and Shuttered Venue Operator Grants, as of Aug. 17.
Restaurant Revitalization Fund
1. $5 million: Saddlebrook Resorts, Wesley Chapel
2. $2.3 million: Irish 31, Tampa
3. $1.77 million: Cate Star LLC, Brooksville
4. $1.73 million: Bascom’s Chop House, Clearwater
5. $1.7 million: Tinsley Family Concessions, Winter Haven
Shuttered Venue Operator Grants
1. $10 million: Feld Entertainment, Palmetto
2. $9.3 million: Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater
3. $8.1 million: David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa
4. $8 million: Florida Aquarium, Tampa
5. $8 million: ZooTampa at Lowry Park, Tampa