‘Unfair’ application process preventing some Illinois live venues from applying for needed federal grants

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — Some Illinois live venue managers say the application process for a federal grant program designed to help them recover from the pandemic is shutting them out.

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program is established by the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits, and Venues Act and administered by the Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Assistance.

The program is offering $16 billion to eligible venues which may qualify for grants equal to 45% of their gross earned revenue. However, some Illinois venues can’t even get past the application process — some managers are calling it unfair.

After a year of closed doors, empty seats, and dead space the Peoria Civic Center is slowly inching towards hosting events again. Rik Edgar, the venue’s general manager, said he was banking on the grant to help ease COVID-19’s financial blow over the past year.

“For a year, we’ve been working on getting this grant funding lined with the intent that it’s going to help us do the right thing,” Edgar said. “Our deferred debt is coming due and we were supposed to get 45% of our lost revenue to help us get back on our feet.”

He said the Civic Center is eligible by federal standards for the grant and said they’d be eligible for just under $10 million. But he said the SBA is making the application process impossible for them to apply.

“They’re asking for tax returns and as an authority venue in the state of Illinois, we don’t file tax returns. The rules are if you can’t file a tax return then you’re not eligible,” Edgar said.

Edgar said the problem is a state issue, saying in Illinois these venues are set up as authorities that aren’t a part of the city’s budget. He said similar venues in other states, like West Virginia and Wisconsin, don’t run into the same roadblock.

“Venues in those states are on the city’s budget, so the city gets funding for them, and we’re not,” Edgar said. “Most people don’t realize that while we’re run by the city, and we’re next to the city, we’re not part of the city’s budget.”

He said not being apart of the city’s budget and without the grants will cost them a lot of money, they don’t have, to get back up and running.

“We’re not asking for anything that any other venue isn’t offered,” Edgar said. “We just want fair treatment, but the way it’s being interpreted we’re getting discriminated against for these funds.”

Over in Joliet, Val Devine, executive director of the Rialto Square Theatre, said they’ve had to furlough almost all of their staff and without these funds, they’re in the same boat.

“Not many businesses create a business plan that allows for them to be closed for over a year and still be sustainable and that’s pretty much where we’re at,” Devine said. “A 25% occupancy doesn’t help me much.”

She said she’s hoping they can get more eyes and ears on this issue.

“This is something that we’re bringing to everyone’s attention and the fact that they’re listening and saying ‘Aha, we didn’t think about that is a step in the right direction,” Devine said.

Edgar said he’s reached out to state legislators and hope they will start advocating for these venues to get the funds designed to help them recoup their losses.

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