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Venues bounce back with help from SBA funding 

Foreigner plays a show at the American Music Theater in Lancaster. PHOTO: KELLEY BREWER

The pandemic had a long tail for Pennsylvania’s music and sports venues, many of which found themselves closed into the latter half of 2021 before they could begin hosting events once again. 

As more of Pennsylvania’s adults received vaccinations and CDC guidance changed, the Wolf Administration slowly expanded occupancy limits for indoor venues- first from 10% to 15% in early March, to 25% later in the month and then to 50% in May. 

Venues then returned to 100% vacancy in June after the state’s General Assembly voted to end Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus emergency declaration. 

For venues like Lancaster’s American Music Theater and Reading’s Santander Arena, reopening at partial occupancy would have resulted in further losses, meaning that it made the most sense to weather out the storm. 

“The overhead that goes into a show isn’t scalable for us. We pay the artist a fee and we have to turn the lights on the same,” said Brandon Martin, director of operations at the American Music Theater. “Those expenses don’t scale depending on how many people come to the show. We can’t open at 20% occupancy and ask the artist for 20% of their fee.” 

A majority of venues waited for full occupancy before reopening. Hershey’s Hersheypark Stadium held its first concert with country artist Luke Bryan on July 9th, 2021 while Hershey Theater and the GIANT Center held their first shows in August. 

At the Santander Arena, closing for nearly 16 months equated to millions of dollars in lost revenue. 

“The building was closed but the water was running and the power was still on,” said David Farrar, general manager of the Santander Area. 

The American Music Theater in Lancaster. PHOTO/PROVIDED

To keep the nation’s venues opened and to ensure that many businesses would be able to reopen for the 2022 season, the U.S. Small Business Administration announced two rounds of Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) funding for venues that suffered revenue losses because of the pandemic. 

“The majority of the Shuttered Venue Operators Grants have gone to businesses with 50 employees or less – which means we’re reaching our smallest businesses, who suffered disproportionate impacts from the pandemic and were often left out of early rounds of relief,” Isabella Casillas Guzman, SBA Administrator said in a statement after the administration announced its final round of the grants late last year. 

The program totaled $16 billion in grant funding nationally. In Pennsylvania, that funding equated to $422.95 million. 

Area venues have pointed to the program as the reason they were able to confidently open in 2022 and plan for a robust season of entertainment.  

Dozens of venues in the midstate received funding through the program with venues receiving over $17 million in Lancaster, over $4 million in Harrisburg and $3.9 million in York. 

In the Lehigh Valley, venues received over $11 million in Reading, $9 million in Bethlehem and $10.9 million in Bethlehem. 

“As 2020 came to a close, the cooperation from all sectors of government to pass one of the largest arts bills in our country’s history, the SVOG, just in time to ensure our survival into 2021 was instrumental and invaluable to not only our organization but to our community, from our staff to performers, artist and vendors throughout the Lehigh Valley,” said Kassie Hilgert, president and CEO of ArtsQuest, the Bethlehem-based nonprofit that oversees venues that include the Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks, Musikfest Café and Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas. 

The nonprofit received $7.3 million through SVOG. 

The Berks County Convention Center Authority, which oversees the Santander Center and Santander Performing Arts Center secured $8.8 million through the SVOG along with an additional $3 million from Reading City Council. 

Santander arena saw a return to events in the fall of 2021, but the resurgence in the pandemic in the winter once again slowed down events. This year, the arena has a packed schedule of concerts and sporting events. 

“It feels like we are there,” said Farrar. “Half of 2021 we were shut down. Our 2022 schedule looks good. The first little bit has been good and the overall year looks solid.” 

The American Music Theater received $4.4 million in SVOG funding. The venue is the only one of its kind in the country to offer in-house produced shows as well as celebrity acts. 

“It was an extremely vital lifeline,” said Martin. “Speaking on behalf of the 3,000 plus independent venues that benefited from the program, it’s hard to imagine a way forward without that funding,” said Martin. “The books were battered after that long of no venue and plenty of operating expense.” 

The Steel Stacks in Bethlehem. PHOTO: JEFF AUGER

Martin added that the industry has changed now that artists, vendors and promoters know that the entire industry can crash like it did in 2020. Everything from contract language to show estimates now have a new awareness of what could happen if venues once again shut down. 

Despite that added caution, many venues are looking at a packed schedule for 2022. Venues are actually more aggressive when it comes to securing acts for their stages, said Ross Atamian, president of Stamford, Connecticut-based talent buyer, Philip Citron Inc. 

Philip Citron is AMT’s exclusive talent buyer. Atamian said that theaters have returned to making offers on shows for 2022—a barometer of the industry bouncing back. 

“Internally, there is an increased competition with everyone making offers,” said Atamian. “In 2021 there was uncertainty about booking shows. SVOG has afforded venues the ability to get their operations back to pre-pandemic levels.” 

 

Ioannis Pashakis
Ioannis Pashakis is the Central Penn Business Journal's assistant editor. Email him at [email protected].

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