When business is down 90 to 100 percent, help can’t come soon enough. This is how Classic Cinemas CEO Chris Johnson describes the news of federal grant money being allocated to arts venues through the Small Business Administration (SBA) after the latest COVID Relief Bill passed Dec. 27. 

Classis Cinema’s Lake Theatre, 1022 Lake St., has been shuttered since mid-March. The other 14 theaters in the family-owned portfolio, including North Riverside Luxury 6, have been closed too, except for 13 that opened for two weeks during the summer. “We’ve had some hardships,” Johnson said. Classic Cinemas is losing 100 percent of revenue during the pandemic.

The National Independent Venues Association (NIVA) advocated for legislation in the latest relief bill through a Save Our Stages campaign. Through the Save Our Stages Act, included in the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, $15 billion will be distributed through the Shuttered Venue Operators (SVO) Grant to live venue, theatrical, and performing arts organization operators; museums, zoos and aquariums; and movie theaters. 

Those “who suffered a 90 percent or greater revenue loss between April 2020 through December 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic” get to apply first, however, applications are not open yet, while the SBA focuses on new Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) funds made accessible in the new relief package. “It could take many weeks, even months for the funding to flow” from SVO grants, according to NIVA, on its website.

Madison Street Theater (MST) in Oak Park, a live performance venue, has lost an estimated 90 percent of revenue according to nonprofit Oak Park River Forest Civic Theater board member Tina Reynolds. The nonprofit oversees and runs MST. “We do not have a revenue stream coming into the theater,” she said and foresees this lasting another six months.

The wait to get help has been difficult, Reynolds said. With a volunteer board doing most of the work, along with hired contractors, relief such as PPP has not been available to MST as it was intended to fund continued employment. 

“While it’s incredibly optimistic that there are grants and opportunities now available, it was a long time coming,” she said of the theater at 1010 Madison St. 

When an aging portion of the HVAC system failed, leaving MST very cold in November, a GoFundMe Campaign was launched to remedy the issue and keep the building open. Ovation, an award-winning performing arts program for youth, is the resident theater company and uses the space for its classes, rehearsals and performances. Reynolds said with the generosity of donors, the first phase of replacing the outdated HVAC is complete, allowing the building to stay warm in the winter months.    

However, there are utilities, maintenance and mortgage bills that need to be paid. 

SVO grant money can cover these expenses, as well as payroll, administrative fees, independent contractor payments, taxes and insurance.

As a museum, the Hemingway Birthplace, 339 N. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, may be eligible, however the organization is weighing what works best for them. There are stipulations that applicants for an SVO grant “must not have received a PPP loan on or after Dec. 27, 2020.” According to Keith Strom, executive director, they are awaiting “further clarification of the program guidelines by the SBA.” With their main revenue stream, in-person tours, greatly reduced, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, which runs the museum, turned to a GoFundMe to “keep the doors open.” It has raised $64,600 of a $75,000 goal over three months.

The Oak Park River Forest Museum, 129 Lake St., Oak Park, is also evaluating PPP versus SVO grant money, according to Frank Lipo, executive director. 

“After the state-mandated closures for indoor museums from March through July 8 and again from Nov. 20 through today, and for how much longer we don’t know, we are grateful that this federal funding was approved,” Lipo said. “Obviously, we and our colleagues at large and small museums of all sorts have seen gigantic dips in various revenue streams including ticket revenue, special events, retail, etc.” He credits the community for stepping up with support for the museum. 

Local operations that bring performing arts to the community are also in the exploratory stage, including Nineteenth Century Charitable Association, which puts on regular programing for members and the community, and Open Door Theater, where they produce their own shows and also operate as a venue for others.

16th Street Theater is more certain of pursuing such a grant. The Berwyn theater, at 6420 16th St., credits support from “individuals, foundations, government grants including money from the CARES Act and a Business Interruption Grant” to their survival during this time, according to artistic director and founder Ann Filmer. 

“16th Street will apply for all grants and aid for which we are eligible,” she said. “With our stages being shuttered, we brought in only $15,000 in single ticket sales instead of $54,000 last year. Our subscription campaign brings in $60,000 per year, but in 2020 we only sold $24,000 in subscriptions.”

Live music venues may also benefit from SVO grants.

For Fitzgerald’s Nightclub, 6615 Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn, the timing of ownership may pose a question. While the nightclub itself in its current form has been in operation for nearly 41 years, current owner Will Duncan took the reins in early March 2020. For SVO grants, the revenue used to calculate loss compares 2020 to 2019 numbers. Duncan is hoping that the continuity of the business, and not ownership, will allow him to qualify. 

“My hope is that the eligibility is dynamic enough that I can share information provided by prior ownership and prove continuity in order to get over the hurdle regarding this recent change in ownership,” Duncan said. “I’ll likely engage an attorney to help navigate these waters.”

Although Duncan has found creative business solutions that are COVID-19 safe alternatives, such as neighborhood truck concerts, things have not been easy for the business. 

“Given the recent change of ownership and rather new business entities I established for the project, access to grants and PPP loans have been difficult for Fitzgerald’s,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate to do some actual business across the summertime which has kept us breaking even and employing people. However, having suspended on-premise operations back in early November due to the COVID numbers, we’re having a tough winter.”

Johnson, who calls the SVO grant a “lifesaver,” said Classic Cinemas is very committed to Oak Park and has hopes to reopen their locations by the spring if a number of things happen, including that it is allowed under state mandate, that safety protocols can be put into place and that there is a steady supply of new films.

“Studios are in L.A. and they are the hardest hit (with COVID-19) right now,” Johnson said. 

Reynolds sees MST as a “community gem” and, like Johnson, wants to see the space operating, being an anchor for Madison Street in Oak Park, but also a destination for performing arts programming for the greater Chicago area bringing business and different people to the area, along with providing value to the community.  

Johnson also imagined the day, when Lake Theatre is open, with Lake Street construction now complete, the street filled with people again enjoying all that Oak Park has to offer.  

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