A beacon of hope: Iowa entertainment venues wait for federal funding to hit

By: - July 3, 2021 11:00 am

Hoyt Sherman Place was built in 1877 and its theater holds 1,252 guests. (Photo courtesy of Robert Warren/Hoyt Sherman Place)

Two months after applications opened for federal pandemic assistance, Iowa venues continue to wait for federal money to keep their businesses afloat. 

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, or SVOG, program, will allocate $16 billion to venues across the country as part the federal pandemic aid approved earlier this year.  

Robert Warren, executive director of Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines, was one of the people lobbying the government to assist venues affected by the pandemic. Warren said many of his peers’ venues have applied for the funding since the applications opened in April, but most are still waiting to hear back.

“Most of us got our application in and supported each other in the process,” he said. “And as of July, more than 70% of the venues that have applied are still waiting for the money to come through.”

As of June 28, the Small Business Administration received nearly 15,000 applicants requesting $11.6 billion in funding across the country. Out of the more than 2,000 grants awarded, 23 venues in Iowa received funding totaling $4.6 million. 

Venues banding together

Long before the promise of federal funding, venues were trying to help one another survive, Warren said. After the announcement that Des Moines’s Vaudeville Mews would permanently close in October, he said Des Moines venues have been trying to support one another.

“I know people who are using personal funds and other jobs to keep venues afloat,” he said. “It’s just sad and it shouldn’t be happening. But, in Des Moines, we’re collectively trying to make sure that anybody who is on that verge, that we do something for them, locally, to support and help them.”

The closing of Vaudeville Mews did allow for some venues to gain more business and survive the pandemic, Warren said, with performers looking to schedule events at other locations.

The camaraderie of venues during a difficult 15 months is farther ranging than the 56,000 square miles of Iowa. Des Moines Community Playhouse Executive Director David Kilpatrick said he has been checking in with other community playhouses across the country over the past year.

He said the community theaters also worked together to share information about the SVOG application process. 

Some application complications

The process to attain funding has not been particularly easy, Warren said. The website where venues can submit applications crashed, he said, because of the large number of applicants wanting to get in right away. 

“The portal crashed because, I think, 11,000 venues across the country were trying to apply,” he said. “The reassuring part was different venues were all texting one another, asking if they got in and what message they had, so there was a real camaraderie there … But there has been one technical glitch after another.”

Jayne Armstrong, the director of the Small Business Administration’s Iowa district, said district offices are working as liaisons and fielding questions from local applicants. The variety of funding programs running through the Small Business Administration’s website is adding to traffic, leading to more potential issues.

“There has been a lot of volume for all of our programs,” she said. “We’re working on eight different economic recovery programs at the SBA right now and that is being coordinated by the Office of Disaster Assistance.”

She said the field offices cannot be involved with answering specific questions, legally and ethically, which creates a more complicated pathway to accessing these funds. 

Another difficult part of the process can be the fact that it’s a federal grant, Armstrong said. The application could need from 30 to 100 documents from different venues before it can be approved, she said. 

Necessary documents include tax returns from the last three years, a written certification of need, business licenses, information about business owners and employees, and other applicant-specific documentation. 

Due to potential problems, some venues like the Des Moines Community Playhouse decided to hold off on applying for funding. Kilpatrick said he waited to apply for the grant because he knew there might be issues with the process.

“Every other grant application we’ve done this past year made me realize that if you aren’t the first one, they aren’t discovering all of their mistakes on you,” he said. “So I waited because we were surviving and doing okay. Waiting the two weeks made it a pretty simple process because they found all the mistakes.”

Kilpatrick said he was able to postpone filing an application because of funding the Playhouse has received from the Paycheck Protection Program loans — a different federal program run through the Small Business Administration— and individual donors. 

An economic domino effect

The grant program does not only help venues, Armstrong said, but also helps surrounding businesses thanks to foot traffic from showgoers and art lovers. 

“This program is so important because it’s a domino effect, with the whole economy,” she said. “What we’ve seen in the past year, as a lot of venues have shut down, not only has it affected those venues but people’s ability to go out. Then you think about the businesses around those venues, like restaurants and shops that would normally get a lot of business from that foot traffic that aren’t.”

She said the program will assist venues returning to normal, allowing businesses surrounding event locations to as well.

Regardless of when the funding is coming, Kilpatrick said he received an email from the grant program stating that all applicants that meet eligibility requirements will receive funding. He said the Des Moines Playhouse is set to receive nearly $300,000. 

The funding is a relief and an affirmation, Kilpatrick said.

“This grant is a testament to our value to the community, that at the government and the private level we’re getting recognition that we serve the community,” he said. “And that is so important because sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing and how important art really is.”

Warren said the fight to attain this funding and ensure venues remain in Iowa has been a collaborative process that brought people together. As vaccination numbers continue to rise and restrictions diminish, he said he expects venues in the state to return in full force.

“Ninety percent of our earned income [at Hoyt Sherman Place] just stopped in 2020,” he said. “And this year, we will be back stronger than ever. I know a lot of the other organizations pivoted the same way to replenish, clean, and polish their venues, so when they do reopen, it’s going to be such a breath of fresh air.”

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a third-year student at the University of Iowa where she studies journalism and mass communication and global health studies. She worked as a news reporter covering shared governance and higher education and a digital producer for The Daily Iowan since her freshman year. In the fall, she will return to the paper as a news editor. As a second-year, she hosted and co-produced "On The Record", the DI's news podcast that was named Best Podcast by the Iowa Newspaper Association.