For Donnie Biggins, the owner of a small Chicago venue called Golden Dagger, April 8 was supposed to be a lifeline. It was the day the Small Business Administration would open applications for the $16.25 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), a part of the December Save Our Stages Act aiming to provide relief to entertainment venues and other qualified businesses that suffered a revenue loss of 90 percent or more as a result of coronavirus restrictions between April and December 2020.
Instead, when the SBA’s applications online portal opened at noon, Biggins and other applicants couldn’t get it to load and those that did, couldn’t even upload documents to prove they qualify for the grant. Later that afternoon, before any application could be successfully submitted, the SBA shut it down completely, claiming that it was working to fix the problems and “to ensure fair and equal access once it is reopened.” As of press time, the SBA has yet to announce a new date for the rollout but has said they’ve identified and fixed the initial issues with the portal.
“I honestly would say that I was expecting this happening in a weird way," said Biggins. "Nothing has gone to plan for us in any capacity." With live music on hold since March 2020, he's spent the year reimagining and rebranding his venue, changing its name from Tonic Room to Golden Dagger and making improvements to the space. Using grant money he received from the city of Chicago in December, he moved the stage to promote distancing; added new windows, better ventilation, and outdoor seating; and transformed the bar into an all-day cafe, with cocktails to-go and an expanded menu of nonalcoholic options.
“I spent that money with the intention that come January, February, or at worst March, we would be applying for this SVOG grant,” said Biggins. “Now, it’s April and you don't know when to throw in the towel. To even think that this can go for another month is outrageous. If you're a small business, you can't keep waiting.”
The SBA has said they expected 15,000 applications from qualified businesses—including independent music venues, Broadway theaters, performing arts centers, promoters, and even zoos—so Biggins is not alone. “With that money, I can finally hire staff, I can hire managers and really put together a whole new business plan that doesn't involve a negative bank account to operate in some capacity after a year without shows,” said Biggins.
According to Biggins, each day he spends waiting for the SBA to get its act together and fix the issues with its application system, puts him and other venue operators at risk of further financial ruin. “I am desperately borrowing money,” said Biggins, who also said he’s taken on an extra job as a talent buyer at a suburban venue to stop the financial bleeding. “It's gonna make me a little emotional, but I'm fucking broke. My landlord’s waiting. Bills are waiting, [and] the cost of reopening is intense.”
The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which lobbied vigorously last year for the Save Our Stages Act, has been equally frustrated with the delay. “We're anxiously awaiting word when the portal will be open again and hoping that it works," said NIVA spokesperson and director of communications Audrey Fix Schaefer. "We want the SBA to get it right and get it done fast.” With over 3,000 independent venues among its affiliate members, NIVA understands the human cost of the SBA further delaying this needed aid.
“I got an email from a woman who owns a venue who said she's trying to figure out whether to put off surgery that was planned around the SVOG opening up on April 8,” said Schaefer. “Because if the applications open up and she’s recovering from this needed procedure, then she's out of luck and might miss out. That's just one example of the humanity of it—the stress and strain of the entire situation.”
Beyond the urgency of these businesses needing this federal aid, the SBA’s applications have so far been opaque and confusing. According to the New York Times, hours before the application process originally opened up, the SBA posted and then quickly removed a 58-page guide for applicants. A revised version was uploaded a few minutes before the application portal opened, leaving applicants scrambling to get a handle on the process.
Since the SBA closed the portal before a single application was submitted, it’s unclear if the updated guide will be accurate for potential applicants in navigating the site in the future. “The amount of preparation and work for venue owners that goes into trying to make sure that this is correct in the application is very difficult,” said Biggins. “My attorney kept telling me was that if we get something wrong, we can just get denied and not told why. That's extremely unfair to put in all this work compiling documents and still not get any clarity on how it will work.”
Further complicating matters, the SBA’s Inspector General put out a report on April 8 citing “serious concerns” with the SVOG’s controls and safeguards against waste and fraud. “Currently, the program office has one designated official and its staff are on temporary detail,” the report said. “At this time, SBA has not formalized a plan for staffing this office relative to the volume of applications expected. The agency has also not defined the organizational structure for administering the program.” The inspector general concluded the report advising the SBA to take “immediate action” to eliminate the risk of fraud and implement safeguards against the potential misuse of billions of dollars of federal funds.
Clearly, there's a lot of work ahead for the SBA, who on Wednesday said, “our teams identified other potential performance issues, which we are working to resolve.” But people like Biggins and Fix-Schaefer want the SBA to know that time is of the essence and people’s livelihoods are at stake.
“This money will be a lifeline for me to remain in operation,” said Biggins. “This is a way to be a fully functioning, small venue that’s a place artists want to go to and play.” If the SBA doesn’t open applications soon and efficiently send out aid, Biggins and his peers might not make it through to the reopenings.