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'The only thing that kept us in business': Richmond-area venues receive up to $22 million from grant program
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'The only thing that kept us in business': Richmond-area venues receive up to $22 million from grant program

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RTD A1 Minute Nov. 8, 2021

When the pandemic hit, EventMakers had to cancel its entire concert season at Innsbrook After Hours.

“We had no revenue whatsoever in 2020,” said Larry Creeger, president of EventMakers. “We had quite a few lease agreements that had to be paid. Paying out $15,000 to $50,000 a month adds up in a hurry. Especially with no money coming in.”

Many local venues — from music halls like The Broadberry to movie theaters like the Byrd Theatre — were in a similar boat.

In December of last year, Congress passed a $16 billion program called the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant to help those type of entertainment venues.

Since applications opened in April, $179 million has been awarded to 280 shuttered venues in Virginia, according to the latest report. Some Richmond-area venues have received as much as $4 million to as little as $5,000. In total, $22 million has gone to Richmond-area venues so far.

EventMakers USA received $2.57 million from the program, one of the largest grants for shuttered music venue operators in the Richmond area. The company has been around for over 30 years. It employs eight full-time staff members and 15 to 20 part-time positions during the concert season along with volunteers and contract labor. This year, EventMakers left its longtime location at Innsbrook and started a new series at Meadow Event Park.

“The only thing that kept us in business was the grant money,” Creeger said. “It cost us $750,000 to get from 2019 to 2021. I don’t know what we would have done without the grant.”

Eligible applicants for the program could qualify for grants equal to 45% of their 2019 gross earned revenue.

Phil Whiteway, managing director of Virginia Repertory Theatre, called the grant program “a godsend.”

When the theater closed for almost a year and a half, Whiteway said, “we had to furlough 75% of our staff, myself included.”

In 2020, the theater’s budget shrank from $5.8 million to $1.5 million.

With the grant program, Virginia Rep received $1.4 million and is expecting $978,570 in a supplemental grant.

The theater company has used the grant money for salaries, production costs, marketing and purchasing some new equipment like lighting equipment.

Richmond Ballet stayed open for much of the pandemic, but had to move all its performances to the studio at 407 E. Canal St. Pre-pandemic, the studio could hold up to 250 people, but for social distancing requirements, audiences shrank to 50 to 60 patrons.

“Our earned revenue took a huge hit. We couldn’t perform at the same level,” said Michelle Muller, Richmond Ballet’s CFO.

Earned production and tours revenue for fiscal year 2020 for Richmond Ballet was $2.1 million. In contrast, for the same season this past year, earned production and tours revenue dropped to $330,000.

Richmond Ballet received $1.23 million from the grant program that it has put toward payroll, rent on its warehouse, utility bills, administrative costs, maintenance, insurance and extra cleaning costs. It employs 107 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees.

“This grant helped our dancers keep dancing and our people employed,” Muller said.

Many venues that applied for the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP loans, could also apply for the SVOG program. The SVOG was meant to cover payroll, rent, payments to independent contractors, maintenance costs, administrative costs, state and local taxes and fees, operating leases, insurance payments, advertising and capital expenditures related to producing a theatrical or live performing arts production.

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When the pandemic hit, The Broadberry, an indoor music venue at 2729 W. Broad St., closed its doors and didn’t know when it would reopen.

Lucas Fritz, co-owner of the venue, had to lay off the entire staff.

The Broadberry received $558,809 in SVOG grants, while the smaller venue, The Camel, at 1621 W. Broad St., received $370,237. The Broadberry Entertainment Group, which books and promotes concerts for both venues, received $367,949.

“To reopen, we needed to rehire all of our managers two months before we opened to get everything back up and running again,” Fritz said. “We were able to pay our staff while we had no revenue coming in.”

The Broadberry employs about 50 people, while The Camel employs about 15.

The majority of the grants for The Broadberry and The Camel will go toward operating costs: payroll, rent and utilities, Fritz said. “We had a fair amount of back rent that we were able to pay back.”

The Broadberry also used the grant money to service all of the equipment after being closed for a year and a half, like the refrigeration and the HVAC.

Then the delta variant hit music venues hard this summer.

“We’ve had anywhere from 25% to 30% of our shows cancel or reschedule to 2022,” Fritz said. “We’re also seeing very, very low attendance rates for people who purchase tickets. Across the country, music venues are seeing anywhere from a 20% to 40% no-show rate. For our sold-out shows, 30% of the ticket buyers aren’t showing up.”

“We would not have been able to reopen and stay operating without this assistance,” Fritz said. “It was of the utmost importance.”

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Movie theaters also have been devastated by the pandemic.

The Byrd Theatre in Carytown closed in March 2020 during the pandemic, reopening seven months later. But still, over a year later, the Byrd is operating only at 30% of the seating to allow for social distancing for safety reasons, despite being allowed to operate at full capacity.

“The SVOG grant has been a lifesaver,” said Stacy Shaw, executive director of the Byrd Theatre.

The Byrd received $344,936 from the grant program and is waiting on a supplemental grant of $195,815.

“We will use it to pay our staff and to pay for the mortgage on our building,” Shaw said. “We tried to keep it very simple, down to the basics of what we needed to stay in operation.”

The Byrd has seen its fair share of trouble as a second-run movie theater in a historic movie palace that needs constant attention and maintenance. But now that movie studios have started releasing new movies to streaming devices, the Byrd has seen its revenue drop even more.

“Streaming threw our industry about a decade ahead,” Shaw said. “We’re a second-run movie theater, we’re not eligible to be a first-run movie theater except on rare occasions. We’ve seen a significant decline on second-run attendance because many people have already seen it on streaming.”

The Byrd has been trying out new programming to attract customers, such as showing classic films like “The Shining” and “Jaws” on the big screen.

“The grant has allowed us to be methodical about our programming, so that we can see what works best in a different climate and if we need to change it.”

Before the pandemic, the Byrd employed two full-time employees, nine part-timers and four part-time consultants such as the organist, marketing consultants, bookkeeping and development.

Now, the Byrd employs seven full-time positions, six part-time and two part-time consultants.

“My focus over the last year has been to create a more stable work environment including the addition of health insurance for full-time staff. A pandemic is not the time to be make access to health care more difficult,” Shaw said.

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But not every venue in Richmond was helped by the SVOG program.

The National, which is owned by AEG Live, a California entertainment conglomerate, did not receive any grant money from the program. ASM Global, which manages the Altria Theater, Dominion Energy Center and the Bon Secours Training Center, also has not received any SVOG money, although its application is still in review.

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Museums also took a hit during the pandemic.

From mid-March 2020 through May 2021, the Science Museum of Virginia lost more than $4.5 million in earned revenue, according to Richard Conti, chief wonder officer for the museum.

The Science Museum of Virginia, which employs 49 full-time and 44 part-time positions, received $2.3 million from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program.

The museum plans to use the grant money to fund leases for touring exhibitions and Dome features, upgrade permanent exhibits, and make technological investments.

“The grant funds will be used to reinvest in programming, staffing levels and marketing to recover the losses we sustained last year, all with the laser focus on enhancing the guest experience,” Conti said via email.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was awarded $4.21 million, most of which will go into its rainy-day fund, according to Alex Nyerges, director and CEO of the museum.

The VMFA, which employs 572, will use the remaining grant money to pay salary and benefits and other COVID-related non-salary expenses. With the exception of a few part-time employees, the VMFA never furloughed or laid off its staff, despite being closed for more than three months during the pandemic.

Putting the majority of the grant money into the rainy-day fund will protect the future of the museum, Nyerges said, for an uncertain future.

“It’s no longer a question will this happen? Could it happen? he said. “The fact is when will this happen again?

“It could be a natural disaster or a pandemic. We will be prepared.”

“I’ve faced times of war, calamities and economic challenges during my 40 years as an art director,” Nyerges added. “But in four decades, nothing has come close to the impact of this pandemic.”

ccurran@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6151

Twitter: @collcurran

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Colleen Curran covers arts and entertainment for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She writes the weekly column Top Five Weekend Events.

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