Majority of Cleveland Music Venues Still Waiting on Federal Aid From SVOG

click to enlarge Happy Dog is still waiting on federal aid. - Jeff Niesel
Jeff Niesel
Happy Dog is still waiting on federal aid.
Of the nearly 14,000 application submitted by independent venue owners and concert promoters from around the country for relief from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, only about 1,400 have been approved as of early this week.

Forty-four of those 1,400 grants have gone out to Ohio-based operators. Northeast Ohio-based Jilly's Music Room in Akron, the Berea Oktoberfest and the Auricle in Canton have received approval, but other venues have not. Rush Concerts Limited out of Mechanicsburg, OH, for example, received more than 6 million dollars but most of Cleveland's music clubs have yet to receive a dime.

“We remain dismayed that the life raft given to our industry by Congress back in December has yet to be implemented,” says Ken Stein, President and CEO for the League of Historic American Theatres, in a press statement. “The funds are there. They have been there for six months. They need to be disbursed.”

An online system crash in early April took down the application portal for weeks and frustrated many applicants, some of whom were in the middle of completely the lengthy application.

This week, a bipartisan group of representatives including Ohio senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown sent a letter to the SBA urging quick action in disbursing funds under SVOG.

“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. The Administration’s announcement is critical to these businesses as they work to meet existing debt obligations during these unprecedented times.”

Despite a self-imposed June 9 deadline to start rapidly disbursing funds to businesses most grievously impacted by the pandemic and resulting closures, venues and promoters have gotten little in terms of concrete action from SBA.

Local promoter Jim Wadsworth says he’s been approved for funding but hasn’t received any money yet. Wadsworth, who booked shows at Nighttown, the Cleveland Heights bar and restaurant that’s closed for remodeling, is currently booking concerts independently in various venues. 

“I have produced three shows this month at the Cleveland History Center, and there will be three free shows this summer at Lakeview Cemetery,” he says in an email. “I am also programming music at Maiden Lane Live in Akron, which is affiliated with the BluJazz and Musica Clubs. It has been low volume so far, but I always have something on the books, and there is more in the works.”

He says that the pandemic has been “a case of hunkering down and waiting for the conditions to get better.”  The SVOG grant money would allow him to put on more concerts.

“I may take on some other projects as well,” he says. “It is too early to say. I do plan on carrying on, and hopefully I will be able to increase my volume as time passes. The grant will open some doors for me, and for the musicians I work with, so I am excited to be back in action. There is a lot to process, so I am taking it one day at a time.”

Mike Miller of the Music Box Supper Club says his club was in "rock solid shape" prior to the pandemic but could still use the federal aid. His application is still pending approval.

“This business is all about cash flow," he says. "Our cash flow is still very tight but so is staffing. If staffing had rocketed back to full speed, I’d probably be in trouble on cash. SVOG will hopefully dovetail with staffing and help with our weekly costs. Right now, not having staff means we’re not selling tickets to full capacity. We have sold out every show. That sounds fun but it isn’t. The phones ring continuously with regulars who can’t get tickets. We feel bad. We have open seats, but we wouldn’t want people to come and have a bad experience, and we don’t want to burn out our staff either.”

Because the Grog Shop has experienced more than 90 percent loss of revenue, it's in the highest priority of applicants, but the club's application has been “under review” for two weeks.

“It’s ridiculous,” says owner Kathy Blackman, who also owns B-Side Liquor Lounge, which is located underneath the Grog Shop. “And now they’re saying we won't see any money until July 4. I opened in May and everything was broken. I had three broken coolers and a broken air conditioner. That’s just upstairs. I also had two broken coolers downstairs [in the B-Side Lounge], and I had to buy furniture because I was trying to pivot to be seated. I basically moved forward as if I was going to get this money. I didn’t even want to just open my doors. I wanted to be better. Thank god for [special Grog Shop-themed] Vans tennis shoes [the sales of which helped raise funds for the venue]. They kept me afloat for a few months. That was a really good thing that happened and a nice chunk of change."

As of early this week, other local music venues such as the Winchester, Wilbert's, the Beachland Ballroom and the Happy Dog were still in a holding pattern despite having applied for funding.

“We're hoping we get funds by the time we open,” says Happy Dog owner Sean Watterson, who says the club has been approved but had not received any money yet. “It's like running on fumes on the last lap at the Indy 500.”

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