A stroll around downtown Keene in recent decades has provided ample evidence of how important arts venues are to local economies. Beginning in the 1990s, a restoration of The Colonial Theatre that brought a return of live events and enhanced movie offerings led the transformation to a downtown that draws residents and visitors who eat, stay and shop at the numerous restaurants, hotels and stores on Main Street and nearby. The result is a downtown Keene that evolved, survived and thrived.
Or, at least, thrived until the pandemic. It’s been evident since its onset how adversely the pandemic would affect all arts and entertainment venues — The Colonial’s executive director Alec Doyle predicted over a year ago they would be among the last businesses to re-open when COVID restrictions were lifted — and that helping those venues emerge from the long pandemic tunnel is critical not only for their survival, but also for their ripple-effect benefit for equally devastated restaurants, hotels and stores.
Fortunately, that’s also been clear to Congress, which targeted aid to arts venues among its various COVID-related spending to keep businesses afloat and jump-start the recovery. Most recently, legislation enacted late in the Trump administration and enhanced by the Biden administration’s stimulus bill passed in March, authorizes $16 billion for entertainment facilities nationwide, including performing-arts theaters, cinemas, live-music venues and museums, making each eligible for grants of 45 percent of their 2019 revenue, up to $10 million. It’s a critical lifeline for the venues who’ve been shuttered during pandemic restrictions and have struggled even more than other businesses to replace lost revenue.
It’s distressing, then, to learn that red-tape and snafus at the Small Business Administration have tortuously slowed the program’s rollout. Since the initial authorization in December and the March increase of the funding, the SBA has, as of its report issued this week, awarded only 10 percent of the 14,500 national applications, amounting to a paltry 7 percent of the funding requests. The slow pace has caused Congressional outrage, and a group of 55 senators across the political spectrum — including New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan — have penned a stern letter to the SBA’s administrator demanding immediate steps to pick up the pace.
The delays are being felt locally. Keene Cinemas owner Andrew Freeman told The Sentinel’s Caleb Symons that his business — which had “been holding on for dear life” — needs the grant it has applied for, as it has begun resuming showings, to help re-hire employees let go in the pandemic’s early months. Similarly, director Lenny Matczynski of Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music in Nelson reported the grant it’s seeking would help bridge the impact of scaling back some operations since the pandemic’s onset.
The state, too, recognizes the importance of keeping the venues afloat and will be allocating some additional discretionary federal stimulus funding for them. Unfortunately for those seeking the badly needed funding through the SBA grant process, the state assistance will not be available to those who receive a federal grant, and only a few, bigger venues are likely to qualify, state Business and Economic Affairs Commissioner Taylor Caswell told N.H. Business Review.
So the venues are caught in limbo — unable to get their SBA applications processed, and ineligible for state grants. Certainly the SBA must do better to distribute the funds quickly, and it and the Biden administration need to respond quickly to the Congressional calls to do so. In the meantime, we urge the state or perhaps some banks to consider devising a creative way to temporarily front the grant amounts to the venues while their SBA applications are being processed.
The stakes are high not only for the theaters, cinemas and live venues holding on until they can get back on their feet, but also for the local economies that depend on their success and multiplier effect. As Keene state Rep. Donovan Fenton said of the importance of funding the organizations to The Sentinel in April, “These halls, these theaters, these performance venues — they’re destinations,” and funding them “is going to bring back business to those areas.”