The Elsinore Theatre, in downtown Salem on Monday, Nov. 23. Because of the pandemic, the theatre remains quiet. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Loretta Miles, the owner of Salem Cinema, had high hopes for a new program aimed at struggling venues like hers before it was even approved by Congress.
The pandemic has taken a particular toll on venues including movie theaters, live music venues, performing arts organizations and museums, which have been closed or operated at limited capacity for over a year now.
So when Congress included the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program in the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Joe Biden in March, Miles saw a “golden ticket” for her beleaguered industry.
But when the floodgates on the $16.2 billion program finally opened last week, hope gave way to frustration.
“Truly, kind of everything went wrong,” said Miles.
She recalled the U.S. Small Business Administration pulled the guidelines for the program (which it's operating) the night before it launched because they contained incorrect information. The next day, April 8, the online application portal crashed after being overwhelmed with applications.
The Small Business Administration has taken to social media to say it’s working to reopen and improve the application portal.
“We know this experience has been disappointing,” the administration said on Twitter Tuesday. “Live venues are some of the first who had to close due to the pandemic and they need help urgently. They anchor our communities in so many ways; fueling our entertainment and cultural experiences and other businesses.”
According to the administration, venues can qualify for grants of up to 45% of their gross revenue from 2019, with up to $10 million for a single grant. At least $2 billion is reserved for eligible venues with up to 50 full-time employees. The administration said it will accept applications on “first-in, first-out.” Venues that suffered a 90% or greater revenue loss between April and December 2020 will get priority.
Tom Fohn, the executive director of The Elsinore Theatre, said the grant program would be helpful to the downtown venue that’s been closed since March of last year.
Fohn said he got an application in for the program but the portal crashed before he could upload additional documents. When the program reopens, it’ll be competitive and getting a grant won’t be a sure thing, he said.
He said the program’s rocky start is just more of the same frustration that’s marked much of the past year. The venue, located at 170 High St S.E., has 1,300 seats but is currently limited to just 50 (which includes staff) under current pandemic restrictions.
“There’s not much you can do with 50 people,” said Fohn.
Until state restrictions allow more people in the venue, he said holding a concert would be a money-loser.
While Oregon is making progress on vaccinating people against Covid, booking shows is a struggle, he said. With no firm timeline for reopening, he said it’s difficult to pin down dates with booking agents.
“I know that ‘gathering’ is a dirty word right now,” he said. “But at some point life’s got to go on however it might look like.”
Salem Cinema, located at 1127 Broadway St N.E., reopened in March and is capped at 25% capacity, said Miles. She said she’s crossing her fingers to land the federal grant which, along with ticket sales and donations from local movie enthusiasts, would keep her open.
She said the theater’s survival depends on how long the pandemic drags on along with accompanying restrictions. Even if capacity was increased to 50%, she said it could break even.
“I’m losing money every single day that I’m open,” said Miles. But with customers so thrilled to again be watching movies on the big screen, she said it still feels good to see her customers.
Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.
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