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Some venue owners receive a Federal Lifeline. Others are told they are dead.


When the emails finally arrived late last week, some business owners got the good news they had been waiting for: They would receive a portion of a $ 16 billion federal grant that goes to music clubs, theaters and other live event companies to be left to rubble by the pandemic.

But other applicants encountered new obstacles – including the discovery that the government thinks they are dead. It was the latest bureaucratic mishap for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Initiative, an aid program launched by Congress late last year that struggled almost at every turn to provide much-needed aid.

Derek Sitter, the owner of the Volcanic Theater Pub, a 250-seat music and performance venue in Bend, Oregon, was home on Saturday watching a British soccer game when a “Congratulations” warning came on his phone the subject line of an email from the Small Business Administration that manages the scholarship program.

Mr. Sitter ran outside with tears in his eyes to tell his wife and daughter the news. “My heart rate has increased,” he recalls in an interview. “But it was a good increase.”

The Volcanic received about $ 140,000, Mr. Sitter said, although the funds have not yet arrived. (The grant size is set at 45 percent of a venue’s gross revenue as of 2019.) How many venues learned that their applications were approved is unclear, but members of the network of small venues – which became a tightly knit beehive during the pandemic – say they have only heard from a few. The Small Business Administration has not released details of how many claims it has approved.

Other applicants received grim news. Bob Hansan, the managing partner of Bobby McKey’s, a piano bar near Washington, received a cryptic email Tuesday afternoon that began: “Your name appears on the Match Source DMF’s Do Not Pay list.”

A few minutes of frantic Googling revealed that this was a reference to the government’s Death Master File, a record of more than 83 million people whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration.

Mr. Hansan immediately called Social Security Headquarters, which referred him to his local office, which informed Mr. Hansan that his name was nowhere to be found on the death list. The office agreed to send him a form confirming that he is alive, but the document can only be mailed, he was told – a process he fears will be slow.

“It’s this continuous drop of delays,” he said.

Michael Swier, the founder of New York’s Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge – and a prominent figure in the independent music world – also received notification early Wednesday that he was considered dead and said he was beside himself and trying to understand how to correct the mistake.

“What do I do? What evidence do you need?” Said Mr. Swier. “Can I say on the phone: ‘It’s me’?”

Representatives of the Small Business Administration did not answer questions about the erroneous dates of death.

The glitches were the last to weigh on the program, which suffered many delays, including a complete failure of its online system the day it tried to accept applications. (The application system finally opened at the end of April.)

About 13,000 people applied for a total of $ 11 billion. The Small Business Administration has not yet released details on how many it has approved.

In Facebook groups and on Twitter, hectic business owners exchange tips and try to find out where their own claims could be in the application process.

Some venues are starting to get good news.

Hugh Hallinan, executive producer of Downtown Cabaret Theater, a nonprofit venue in Bridgeport, Connecticut, spent weeks checking the SBA’s scholarship portal every day and learned last Thursday that his theater was eligible for a $ 541,000 scholarship was approved.

On Tuesday, the theater held a press conference with Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

“We have been in Bridgeport for 41 years and have never received such recognition,” Hallinan said in an interview. “I just thought, ‘We’re going to suck it all up right away. We’ll bask in it. ‘”

Downtown Cabaret was about to close last year.

“If everyone who had tickets called and said, ‘I need a refund,’ it was game over,” Hallinan said. Instead, many opted for credit to their account, and about a third of guests donated the cost of their tickets back to the venue, Hallinan said.

The funds are not yet flowing into Broadway. A spokeswoman for the Broadway League, a trade organization that represents producers and theater owners, said none of its members had notified the group that they had received application approvals. Charlotte St. Martin, the group’s president, said last month that group officials said the funds would be received in late May, but that deadline has now passed.

And several large performing arts organizations in New York City planning to reopen this summer or fall are also waiting. Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theater, the Public Theater, and the Metropolitan Opera have not heard. Many will not be eligible to enter until a later round of awards.

Oregon-based Mr. Sitter said he had no idea why the volcano received its award so early. Like many applicants, it had lost at least 90 percent of its revenue during the pandemic, which qualified the Volcanic for the first round of funding. Others who have lost less are eligible for awards in mid to late June.

The volcano received federal funding from an earlier round of federal pandemic aid last year. That made it by 2020, said Mr Sitter. But last month the Volcanic had run out of its last few thousand dollars, not enough to cover its rent and monthly bills for June, said Mr. Sitter. He wondered whether to sell it or close it.

With the Closed Venue Scholarship, the Volcanic can stay open until next year, when Mr. Sitter expects his show pipeline to return to normal. This weekend, the first shows since last summer should be shown with 50 percent occupancy.

“Certainly not much profit is made here,” said Mr. Sitter. “This is simply supposed to lift people’s spirits to say, ‘We can somehow do it, we do good and there is a way out.'”

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