MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Lights at First Avenue have been mostly off since the pandemic forced crowds away, drying up nearly all of its revenue.
Then six months ago came a flicker of hope when the U.S. Congress approved $16 billion to help keep independent entertainment venues afloat.
"I don't think I've ever been on a Zoom call with a lot of venue owners who watched CSPAN together before," joked Ashley Ryan, vice president of marketing for First Avenue. "It was a sense of joy, relief, you know, disbelief I think for a lot of people."
But that bright spot quickly dimmed. Venues for months have felt left in the dark about when they would see that aid. First Avenue and others under the same ownership, like the Turf Club and Palace Theatre, haven't seen a dime of it.
Data from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) shows more than 14,000 total have applied seeking $11.5 billion in relief, but the federal agency has awarded only 411 grants totaling $304 million.
Just three venues in Minnesota are approved.
"There's been a lot of confusion just about the process," Ryan said. "People don't even know what the statuses mean: 'pending,' or 'pending review,' 'final review.'"
Ryan described a complicated process beset by technical difficulties. In some cases, applications included more than 100 documents. Months after First Avenue applied for one of the "Shuttered Venue Operators" grants, it's still waiting for a lifeline.
The Save Our Stages Act, which Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar co-authored, passed Congress in December. Applications opened in April and June 1, disbursements began.
"We're really close to opening our doors, but now we need to bring in staff, we need to bring in artists, we need to bring in actual product for our venues. So we're looking to find the stop gap from a year of no revenue."
Cindy Polich, owner of Elision Playhouse in Crystal, echoed frustrations about the program, which was designed to provide emergency assistance to venue operators that couldn't leverage other federal pandemic aid. She said the process was difficult to navigate and had requirements that worked against her since her business was only open for the latter half of 2019.
That landed her in the second priority group instead of the first, reserved for businesses that suffered a loss of 90% of or more.
"The reality is we lost 100% of revenue, but because of the way they compared the dates, we weren't open in March 2019," she said. "When they compared our revenue from that first quarter of 2019 to the first quarter of 2020, or even the second quarter, we had no comparison to make."
The bills are piling up -- utilities, mortgage and costs associated with opening up again in wake of COVID restrictions lifting -- but even when the grant arrives, it may only cover a third of the losses, she said.
But Elision Playhouse believes it will survive because it's nearly booked out for the next year.
"It's better than nothing," Polich said. "I'll be thankful for whatever we get."
Senators press for answers while Small Business Administration says it's making changes
The SBA -- tasked with reviewing, approving and disbursing the grants -- said it recognizes the rollout of the aid has fallen short of expectations. It's making operational changes, including added dozens of new staff, and bringing in others who successfully launched a program designed to help struggling restaurants, a spokeswoman said.
"We are committed to doing everything we can to improve funding speed, get Americans the relief they desperately need and open our venues again," reads a statement the agency sent to WCCO.
Sens. Klobuchar and John Cornyn, R-Texas -- her co-sponsor of the effort -- and more than half of their colleagues in the U.S. Senate sent a letter to the SBA on Tuesday seeking more information about the delays.
"We urge you to take immediate action to ensure that the relief reaches eligible applicants without further delay," the letter reads in part. "Bureaucratic process cannot stand in the way of getting these desperately needed funds out the door."
But the SBA blamed the beleaguered process "in large part" because of statutory requirements that require "extreme scrutiny" of applications.
Klobuchar's office said the senator was not available for interview Wednesday.
Ashley Ryan with First Avenue said the SBA communicated changes they're trying to implement. She remains hopeful the money will flow soon, needed even more now as the iconic Minneapolis venue prepares to bring live music back in July.
"We're hoping there's an end in sight and that, you know, approvals start coming in fast," she said.
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