Sonoma County entertainment venues get helping hand

Things were looking bleak for the Cloverdale Arts Alliance a month ago. Their rainy day fund had run out and they had to cut back all their programs because of the pandemic.

Then the organization, which runs a downtown arts center and sponsors an outdoor concert series, received a $90,452 federal grant through a program called Shuttered Venue Operators Grants.

“We were running out of money, so we took out a loan from the Small Business Association,” said Mark Tharrington, executive director. “Now, we’ll be able to pay that back.”

The arts center, which normally hosts indoor music nights, workshops and art exhibits, can now reopen, he said. So can the outdoor Friday Night Live free concert series, with live acts booked through Oct. 1.

The Cloverdale organization is one of more than 30 struggling entertainment-oriented businesses in Sonoma County receiving financial help through the program.

Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, voted to establish the program along with Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, as part of the bipartisan COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress in December.

Thirty-four venues in Sonoma County alone have received or will get more than $40 million from the program.

“Local businesses in the music and entertainment industry are an important thread in the fabric of our communities — they create good jobs, bolster the economy and contribute to the culture of our region,” Huffman said in a news release issued Wednesday.

Some of the largest recipients of aid were movie theater operators, with San Carlos Cinemas, which operates Santa Rosa Cinemas, receiving $9.3 million; the operator of Petaluma’s Boulevard 14 Cinemas receiving $4.7 million; and Lodi Cinemas, also affiliated with Santa Rosa Cinemas, receiving $3.8 million. A pair of Sebastopol-based theater companies affiliated with Rialto Cinemas received $1.3 million and $1.2 million, for moviehouses in Berkeley, El Cerrito and Sebastopol.

The Luther Burbank Foundation, which owns and operates the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, received $2.1 million in aid. Richard Nowlin, president and CEO of the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, said, “We are very grateful for these funds along with our community of loyal donors and supporters and to our federal representatives that made this possible.”

The bulk of the grant funds will go to payroll to replace staff members who were laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, he said.

“We are rehiring to bring back as many of our staff members as we can who are still available, and hiring new people as we open live performances at the end of this month,” he said. “You need a certain amount of staff in order to operate and we expect smaller houses in the beginning. … Yet we will have the same expenses to gear back up. These (grant) dollars will help with those expenses.”

The grants also went to smaller venues or performing arts groups. Super Diamond, a Neil Diamond tribute band at McNear’s Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, received $273,391.

The federal grant program was initially plagued by technical problems, which Huffman’s office said have been greatly improved. On the day the application portal opened, it crashed and didn’t reopen for almost three weeks. Huffman joined a bipartisan group of more than 200 members of Congress in calling for the Small Business Administration to speed the release of the money. The SBA has now approved 9,844 grants, including 1,393 in California.

“The American Rescue Plan created the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program to provide a lifeline to struggling businesses, but it’s been difficult for many to access those funds,” Huffman said. “The Small Business Administration’s move to improve and expedite the approval process for critical funding is welcome news.”

Ky J. Boyd, director of Rialto Cinemas, with theaters in Sebastopol, said his company applied for the SVOG grants and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan extension “and our applications were stuck in the system for weeks. This funding is critical to my business and the local economy. Congressman Huffman’s office was able to seek information about my loans and they’ve finally been approved.”

He also praised Sens. Chuck Schumer, Democrat minority leader, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, for spearheading the program, which started out originally as two separate funds: Save Our Screens and Save Our Stages.

“We’re a diverse array of operators — playhouses, concert promoters, movie theaters, museums,” Boyd said. “It must have been trying to make a program for all of us, but the SBA pulled it off and we’re grateful.”

Thousands of people applied and there are three tiers of awards. Another happy grant recipient is Tom Brand, executive director of the Healdsburg Performing Arts Center, which does business as the Raven Performing Arts Center. The center has been closed during the pandemic, but should be able to reopen as early as October with a one-person show.

“We’ll be able to put some money in the bank now, and if you look at the list of who’s getting these grants, there are a lot of people who are getting saved by this bill,” he said.

An executive at a local entertainment venue who preferred not to comment said they hadn’t yet received the grant and were having a rough time navigating the system. The grant says it is “still pending,” they said.

The grant program was established through the bipartisan COVID-19 relief package passed in December 2020.

The American Rescue Plan also instituted a fix to ensure shuttered venues that received Paycheck Protection Program loans after Dec. 27, 2020, also can receive a Small Venue Operators grant, as long as the grant is reduced by the amount of PPP funds provided. Applying for both grant programs was previously prohibited.

You can reach Staff Writers Kathleen Coates at [email protected] or 707-521-5209 and Dan Taylor at [email protected]

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