Liz Tallent was by her computer, ready. She's the marketing and special events director at The Orange Peel in Asheville, N.C., a 1,050-cap venue that has hosted everyone from songwriter Nick Lowe, to Sublime cover band Badfish, to rapper Danny Brown. Like every other music venue, The Orange Peel was hit hard by the pandemic shut downs. Distanced indoor events would barely break even, and because of how the space is set up, there hasn't been a real way to do outdoor events, either.
On April 8, the Small Business Administration (SBA) began accepting applications for its Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), a $16 billion program set up by the SBA to help struggling music venues, live event spaces, theaters, museums and more. It was signed into law in December as a part of President Trump's coronavirus recovery plan, and it's the first time the SBA has done anything like this. And it showed.
After spending weeks collecting documents and filling out forms, Tallent and her colleagues, all situated at separate computers, were set. Noon came and "everybody was just trying, trying, trying," said Tallent. Nothing worked. Tallent is a member of the National Independent Venue Association – a group that formed in the midst of the pandemic to lobby for aid – and reached out to other venue owners. They said they were having trouble, too. Tallent says she spent seven hours trying to apply for an SVOG before giving up.
#SVOG UPDATE: Over the next few days, our tech team and vendors will remain focused on testing the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant application portal; it will not reopen this weekend. We are aiming to reopen the portal by the end of next week.— SBA (@SBAgov) April 16, 2021
That night on Twitter, the SBA announced they were having technical issues and would shut everything down. Now, the SBA says they are aiming to open the portal by the end of this week.
Earlier this week, dozens of congressional members sent a letter to the SBA urging them the importance of getting the program up and running.
"With each passing day, more independent businesses are forced to shutter permanently or file for bankruptcy," the letter reads.
"Landlords and banks are no longer permitting deferrals and are pressing for immediate payment of past due accounts; businesses are receiving eviction notices; mom-and-pop businesses are being forced to sell."
"We don't know what to tell our creditors," says Bert Guerra, the co-owner of Cine El Rey in McAllen, Texas. When the April date was announced, Guerra told his creditors that money was on the way and that Cine El Rey was the poster child for the exact types of venues the SVOG is supposed to help.
Cine El Rey is a renovated movie theater that holds concerts, comedy shows, wrestling matches and more. It's a nationally recognized historic place and it's served its border town community since the 1940s – the type of place where families take their kids, and then years later those kids take their own kids. It also has deep ties to Mexican-American history, and as a cultural hub for an area that, Guerra says, is often misunderstood.
"The theater's not just an entertainment venue," he said. "It's rooted in the truth of our area. So I feel very responsible for preserving that truth."
The SBA set the grant program up so that venues who lost the most should be able to get first crack at this allotment of money as a way to help the most vulnerable. But delays like this end up making everything harder for those very venues. I asked Guerra how much time he had left to hang on.
"Six weeks," he said.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant was supposed to be a glimmer of hope for small live event spaces hit hard by the pandemic. Except as soon as the application portal launched online, it crashed. And as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, it has left struggling venues in the lurch.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Liz Tallent is the marketing and special events director at The Orange Peel, a music venue in Asheville, N.C., that usually holds 1,050 people. Tallent and her co-workers spent weeks getting all their documents ready to apply for the SBA's grant program. On the day the portal was supposed to open, they were set.
LIZ TALLENT: I was at one computer, and we had somebody else at another. And then we had three people all in one office.
LIMBONG: Then noon came and the website seemed to be up.
TALLENT: Everybody was just trying, trying, trying.
LIMBONG: All in all, she says, they spent seven hours trying to get through.
TALLENT: But none of our supporting documents or evidence, which is really the meat of the application, would ever upload.
LIMBONG: This was two weeks ago. Earlier this week, dozens of congressional members signed a letter to the SBA imploring them to get the program up and running, quote, "businesses are receiving eviction notices. Mom-and-pop businesses are being forced to sell." The SBA didn't make anyone available for an interview, but did say in a tweet that their tech team is aiming to reopen the portal by the end of the week. To a certain extent, Tallent can empathize.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SMASHING PUMPKINS' "CHERUB ROCK")
LIMBONG: In 2007, The Orange Peel hosted the Smashing Pumpkins for a residency, a big, big event for a venue that size.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHERUB ROCK")
THE SMASHING PUMPKINS: (Singing) Freak out...
LIMBONG: When tickets were supposed to go on sale, their website crashed.
TALLENT: It was a disaster. I mean, you know, it was, like, just exactly this experience from the other side.
LIMBONG: Of course, Smashing Pumpkins tickets are one thing. The survival of a business is another. Take Cine El Rey in McAllen, Texas. It's a renovated movie theater that holds concerts, comedy shows, wrestling matches and more. It's also a nationally recognized historic space that's been serving the border town community there since the 1940s. Bert Guerra is the owner.
BERT GUERRA: So the theater is not just an entertainment venue, it's rooted into the truth of our area. So I feel very responsible for preserving that truth.
LIMBONG: Regional actors get their start there. Families go there with their kids. Then years later, those kids start taking their kids. The SBA grant program was signed into law back in December by President Trump. It took months to announce when people could even start to apply. And the uncertainty around the portal crash has made things tougher for Guerra.
GUERRA: We don't know what to tell our creditors. We've been telling them ever since it passed nearly five months ago, you know, there's grants coming. We're going to get it, and we should get it. And we're the poster child.
LIMBONG: Guerra says he has six weeks before the place belongs to the bank.
Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.