Ed Masley, The Arizona Republic
Rep. Greg Stanton, an Arizona Democrat and former Phoenix mayor, met with representatives of local music venues at the newly reopened Nile Theater in downtown Mesa Thursday morning.
Stanton was there to tour the venue and get a better understanding of how Shuttered Venue Operators Grants have helped keep places like the Nile afloat through a global pandemic.
"As a recovering mayor, I know how important live music is to the vibrancy of a community," Stanton said, pointing to the role the opening of Crescent Ballroom and other music venues has played in the recent revitalization of downtown Phoenix.
In addition to advocating on behalf of those live music venues in Congress, Stanton's office helped cut through the red tape at the Small Business Administration to get that SVOG money to local business owners.
Local venue reps tell how SVOG funds helped
The Nile Theater's Michelle Donovan and Stephen Chilton of Psyko Steve Presents, who owns the Rebel Lounge and serves on the board of the National Independent Venues Association, shared stories of how the grant had helped them.
"Literally, half my grant went out the door the second I got it," Chilton said.
"I wrote checks and half of it was gone to bills that had been delayed. I hadn't paid rent the entire time thanks to (Rebel landlord) Chuckie (Duff) deferring it. I was his last property distressed because of (COVID-19), so luckily I had a landlord who could do that."
Chilton said by the time the check arrived he was more in debt at Rebel Lounge than when it opened. "It was just massive debt," he said.
The funds he got for Psyko Steve Presents went to hiring new staff and giving raises as he returned to booking shows.
"Right now, we're at this weird point where I've got five people on payroll but our shows haven't started happening," he said.
"So there's not a lot of revenue coming in on that side yet. But I've got all the staffing lead-up. So the grant is doing what it's supposed to do, allowing us to staff up."
At the Nile, they were able to pay rent and keep their theater employees on the payroll, Donovan explained, by "pivoting." In addition to running a coffee shop, they converted a horse trailer into a coffee trailer.
"And we moved our staff from the theater side to the coffee shop so they were able to keep their jobs through the pandemic," Donovan said.
So when the grant came through, the Nile used it to upgrade by installing air conditioning and opening a patio on Main Street.
It's Chilton's understanding that all the local music venues that were eligible for the grant received it, from the Marquee Theatre to Mesa Amphitheatre and most of the arts centers.
Donovan said the Nile was recently approved to receive a second SVOG.
The grants helped venues survive
Chilton said he feels the majority of local music venues wouldn't have survived without the grant.
"Even though it took so long," he said, "once the bill passed in December, it was like, 'OK, I'm willing to take on way more debt, because I know I'm not taking this debt on forever. I'm taking it to get me to the grant."
As a NIVA board member, Chilton said he's only seen a couple of venues across the nation close since Congress passed The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or HEROES Act, in late December.
"Once they passed the Heroes Act," he said, "everyone was like, 'Oh, this is real? I can hold on. I'm not closing if this is there."
From Day One, NIVA looked to Congress as the only viable solution to "a $16 billion problem," Chilton said.
"As soon as we started to try to do some of the first math, we were just like 'There's no way there's any other source of revenue anywhere else. The cities and states are not gonna be able to do it. And it would just be too hard to go do that fight 50 times."
NIVA did its best to keep the framing of the issue as bipartisan as possible, making it clear that this was about saving jobs, not arts and culture.
"I believe in all those arguments about the arts and culture," Chilton said.
"I'm sympathetic to them. But our argument was really that this was small business relief. So we just had a very narrow focus and didn't deviate from that."
NIVA focused on talking with Congress members from every state
Within a week of starting NIVA, they had captains in every state beginning dialogues with local politicians.
"We had people reaching out at honky-tonks in Texas and bars in Nashville," Chilton said.
"This was not 'Go bail out Hollywood.' This was bail out businesses in all these states. And we kept that focus. Congressmen in Chicago don't know the Nile, but Greg does. So this was a truly grassroots effort."
Stanton got behind that grassroots effort without hesitation.
"Greg was literally one of the first congressmen in the country that got behind this when we first started, before we had even introduced the bill," Chilton said.
"As soon as we started talking to him, he understood it. There's a lot of places where it was a lot of pounding on the doors for a long time to finally get in and finally get that right conversation. And that was not the case here."
There were definitely challenges in getting Congress as a whole behind the Heroes Act.
"When you're facing a pandemic that hasn't happened in 100 years, there are a lot of big issues that we in Congress had to solve," Stanton said,
"This is a healthcare crisis. It's an economic crisis. It's a crisis for families throughout the United States of America. So why should this particular industry stand out?"
As a former mayor, Stanton felt he had the answer to that question.
"So many people are moving here from around the country," Stanton said.
"To become a desirable place to live, you have to have venues like this. Economic success and having a vibrant arts and culture scene, especially live music, they go hand in hand. I mean, can you imagine downtown Mesa without this theater here?"
'The rest of the year, it could go either way'
As much as SVOG funds have helped these venues, Chilton cautioned Stanton that we're not out of the woods yet with the Delta variant causing the numbers to spike.
"I've seen shows in December cancel because of COVID," Chilton said. "Everything's rocky. In July, all the on-sales were amazing. And then with Delta, all the on-sales for the last month have been horrible. So the rest of the year, it could go either way."
Donovan said at the Nile, "We're just worried about Delta scaring people away. And we don't want to go through another year and a half with no shows if it gets out of hand again."
When Stanton asked how Congress could improve the program, Chilton suggested extending the timeline for using the grant money.
For music venues, if they don't get supplemental grants, he said, that grant money ends in December. He'd like to see it be more flexible.
Donovan said she'd like to see the SBA be a little more transparent and available to answer questions.
"A lot of times, we were in the dark for chunks of time," she said.