Thursday, December 2, 2021
Dec. 2, 2021

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Clark County theaters in limbo after glitch delays applications for federal grant

By , Columbian business reporter
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April 8 was supposed to be the big day. After three months of waiting, stage and screen venue operators were finally going to get their chance to apply for Shuttered Venue Operator grants, a major federal lifeline for one of the hardest-hit industries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stephen Pick of Vancouver-based Journey Theater was ready to go that morning, with all of the company’s supplemental documentation lined up. But when he went to the application portal on the U.S. Small Business Administration website, he found that something had gone wrong.

“They had some sort of glitch where no one could upload any documents,” he said.

Within a few hours, the SBA had taken the portal back offline and posted a notice citing “technical difficulties.” That’s the message that Kiggins Theatre owner Dan Wyatt and Magenta Theater board president Tim Neill both encountered when they tried to sign in. The SBA later announced that no one had managed to successfully apply.

In a Twitter thread last Friday, the agency said that the root cause of the failed launch had been fixed, but the vendors were still working because “more in-depth risk analysis and stress tests identified other issues that impact application performance.”

A message on the SBA’s website stated that the agency aimed to reopen the portal “by the end of the week of April 18,” but it also said the SBA would provide advance notice to businesses once an exact date was confirmed. As of Thursday afternoon, multiple Clark County venue owners said they had not yet received any such notice.

“There’s some folks in the industry that are putting their money on Monday,” Wyatt said, “but that would have to be a Friday announcement.”

Unique grant program

The Shuttered Venue Operator Grant program is funded by a $16 billion pot of funding set aside in the federal COVID-19 relief package that passed in December. Theaters, music venues and similar businesses that have been shuttered through most of the pandemic are able to apply for funding intended to help make up for their lost revenue.

The SVO program offers grants rather than the forgivable loans doled out under the broader Paycheck Protection Program, and it has a per-business cap of $10 million rather than the $2 million cap for second round PPP loans, making it a much more promising relief avenue for theater owners.

Applications for the second round of PPP loans came online relatively quickly, but the SVO program required the creation of a new set of rules and a new application system. For the first several weeks, there was no official rollout date; the SBA website only said the program would be coming soon.

“The whole process of getting to the finish line with this program has just been delayed and delayed,” said Marina Gephart, director of communications at Battle Ground Cinema parent company Prestige Theatres.

By early February, local theater owners had started to voice their frustration about the lack of a clear timeline. The initial rules prohibited businesses from receiving SVO money if they’d already gotten a second PPP loan, leaving owners with the uncomfortable choice of whether to go for a PPP loan immediately or hold out for an elusive but potentially larger SVO grant.

Last month’s newer COVID-19 rescue package rewrote the rules so that businesses could apply for both programs, with the PPP loan amounts deducted from the SVO grants. The change provided a faster avenue for some initial money, but local theater owners said the full grant program is still urgently needed.

Wyatt estimated that his second PPP loan only covered about 12 percent of the total he expects to be eligible to receive through the SVO program, based on the Kiggins’ pre-pandemic box office revenue. Neill described a similar ratio at the Magenta.

“The problem with the PPP loan is it is primarily to keep employees employed,” he said. “We only have one part-time employee, so the amount of money that would come from that would be miniscule compared to the lost revenue we’ve had over the past year.”

Slow reopening

Local theaters have been allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity ever since Clark County moved into Phase 3 of the state’s current reopening plan in mid-March, and a few have dipped their toes into the water, but the results haven’t been promising.

Battle Ground Cinema reopened a few weeks later in early April, timing its return to coincide with the arrival of tentpole releases “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Raya and The Last Dragon.” But Prestige had also been holding out for news about the SVO program, Gephart said. Back when the program was announced, the company had expected the grant to come ahead of any potential reopening of the theater.

“We were thinking maybe February, March, we’d have the money,” she said.

The reopening has gone reasonably well, Gephart said, with strong crowds in the first couple of weeks. But traffic has begun to die down again without a steady stream of new releases to drive viewer interest. The next big one was originally going to be Disney’s “Black Widow” on May 7, she said, but the company announced in late March it the film would be delayed until July.

Gephart said she wasn’t sure if the current rate of traffic is high enough to justify being open, but it’s worth it to reward the strong community support that the theater has received. Even so, the grants are urgently needed.

“This is not a sustainable period,” she said.

The Kiggins has also reopened, but Wyatt said the first few weeks haven’t been encouraging. The auditorium has room for 100 people under current capacity limits, but most shows have drawn fewer than 20 attendees.

“We heard that everybody wanted us to reopen, but we’ve not seen that reflected in ticket sales,” he said.

The Magenta Theater remains closed, although an SVO grant won’t immediately change that — main stage productions need a full house to be profitable, Neill said, so the current occupancy restrictions make it unworkable.

“We are still hoping to have a main stage performance in the fourth quarter of this year, but that really depends on how the venues open up and how things go,” he said.

Journey Theater is also still focused on virtual shows for the time being, Pick said, although in-person classes have resumed and the company is planning to have in-person summer camps, and the goal is to resume in-person theater activity in the fall.

Columbian business reporter