New Bedford and Fall River sites receive ‘lifeline’ from federal relief funds


In mid-March last year, Governor Charlie Baker issued an emergency order banning gatherings of 250 or more people to help stem the coronavirus outbreak. Within weeks, that assembly limit fell to 10 people and continued to fluctuate amid the pandemic at low levels. As a result, venues across the state have been forced to cancel shows and close their doors – many for more than a year.

The Narrows Center for the Arts, a concert hall in Fall River, lost nearly 80% of its revenue in 2020 due to the pandemic, said executive director Patrick Norton. The venue, which houses a theater and art galleries, only recently opened after the state had fully reopened.

“We tried to pivot but it doesn’t generate as many dollars so we’re very grateful that this [Shuttered Venue Operators Grant] the money has arrived, “Norton said.” Not just for ourselves, but for a lot of our brethren in the independent live music world where it’s really hard to exist. “

Last month, the U.S. Small Business Administration provided assistance to sites through its Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, which includes more than $ 16 billion in grants to sites that have had to close or are currently shutting down in due to the pandemic.

Applicants can receive grants equal to 45% of their gross income, with a maximum amount of $ 10 million available for a single grant. Eligible entities include operators or promoters of performance venues, theaters, live performing arts organizations, museums, cinemas and talent representatives.

The Narrows Center received about $ 648,000, which Norton said it used to rehire staff (it currently has four employees), perform building maintenance and replenish lost revenue.

Zeiterion Performing Arts Center in New Bedford

The Zeiterion Performing Arts Center in New Bedford received nearly $ 882,000 after being closed to the public for about 15 months. The theater has a capacity of 1,200 patrons, but by early August it had not hosted more than 100 patrons at an event since the state’s restrictions were lifted.

Executive Director Rosemary Gill said receiving the funds was “existential” and she was not sure they could have continued to function without it.

The funds can be used to cover wages, rent, utilities, mortgage, debt under certain conditions, protection of workers, contractors, maintenance, taxes, insurance and advertising. Recipients cannot use the funds to buy real estate, pay off certain loans, or make investments or loans.

Gill has said so far that they have used or will use the funds to invest in virtual programming, cover reopening expenses (such as barrier installations), pay for more cleaning supplies and crews, place new filters in the HVAC system; and fill in the “financial” holes left by the pandemic (which largely came from ticket refunds).

“It gave us the ability to be more responsive and non-responsive,” said Gill. “We think we are in a very good position to deal with whatever comes our way.”

Almost half of the funds go to payroll to keep people working, which Gill says is “fantastic.”

Howie Mallowes, co-owner of Vault Music Hall in New Bedford, said the funds have enabled them to start booking some of the biggest musical acts again, a step that often requires substantial deposits.

“We can now get the deposits, which was not possible when we first reopened,” he said.

The Vault received the South Coast’s largest SVOG grant with just over $ 1 million. They are also using the funds to modernize the stage and lighting, and to cover salaries and rent for the coming months.

Mallowes said they are wondering if they will be able to continue operating given the size of the building and overhead costs. He said that amid the pandemic, the owners had considered renting the building.

On Stage Theatrical Productions, a Fall River nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep underprivileged children involved in the performing arts, received approximately $ 40,000. The pandemic has had a “detrimental” impact on On Stage programs, Linda Mercer-Botelho, founder and director of the organization, said in an email.

“No theater has meant no performance, which translates into no income for our programs,” she wrote. “The Shuttered Venue grant has helped us tremendously with operating expenses for the past 18 months.”

Battleship Cove Maritime Museum in Fall River.

For Battleship Cove, which operates a museum and several historic warships in Fall River, the funds have played an important role in ensuring the continued protection and preservation of the ships.

Chris Nardi, chief operating officer of the USS Massachusetts Memorial Committee Inc., said museum attendance returned to normal summer levels but some programs remained limited, particularly the camping event night, which he says represents a significant portion of income.

Battleship Cove received nearly $ 593,000 with federal assistance. Between 2019 and 2020, revenues fell nearly 75%, he said, and ongoing cancellations or postponements of events and programs continue to impact museum revenues through 2021. .

Regarding vessel maintenance, Nardi said the funds have helped fix a technological system that uses batteries to mitigate hull rust.

“There are cables that run between the ships to hold the ground up and those that are deteriorated,” he said. “This is probably the most important interview for us to continue.”

Other funds are used to buy paint, repair the teak deck of the 80-year-old battleship and rebuild the docks alongside the ships that workers use to paint the sides and fight rust, Nardi said.

Jeremy Fontes and his two children Carter Fontes, 8, and Reagan Fontes, 5, walk into the Lagoda Room at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford.

Many sites were previous beneficiaries of PPP

A site or developer that received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan after the end of December 2020 will see the SVOG reduced by the PPP loan amount, according to the SBA.

Most SouthCoast SVOG beneficiaries received PPP loans during the pandemic. Battleship Cove received approximately $ 370,000 between loans in 2020 and 2021, New Bedford Whaling Museum received approximately $ 813,000 between loans in 2020 and 2021, Narrows Center received approximately 66,000, according to a ProPublica database. $ in 2020 and the Zeiterion received approximately $ 547,000 between two loans in 2020 and 2021.

The Vault, which operates with the Greasy Luck restaurant, received around $ 344,000 between loans in 2020 and 2021. Mallowes said these funds have largely helped the restaurant continue to operate, which has helped the venue stay in business. flow through revenue from take-out and delivery orders. .

Amanda McMullen, CEO and President of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, said “safety nets” from several federal funding sources have allowed the museum to not only continue to operate, but also to grow.

She said they experienced a “massive drop” in income following a shutdown for several months and then a limited reopening. The museum typically sees 100,000 visitors a year, but she said it would take them some time to get back to that number.

With the combination of federal funds, the museum was able to expand its online or virtual programming (which in the long run can lead to new memberships), keep staff employed throughout the pandemic, and “overhaul” the HVAC system. – which will benefit not only the visitors but also the historical collections exposed to the same air.

Look ahead

“We are hopeful but the future is uncertain. We would be foolish to think otherwise,” Norton said.

Asked about the coming months, some operators mentioned the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I would say the priority is if you haven’t already, please get the shot. This is the key to being able to come together again,” said Gill.

The Zeiterion has mandated all employees to receive their COVID-19 vaccine to ensure the safety of staff, volunteers, patrons and artists. Gill said employees must be fully immunized by September 1 and that the center will resume welcoming crowds as of August 13.

Norton said he wanted people to just get vaccinated.

“I have friends in Europe who couldn’t go and listen to live music and do different things because they don’t have access to the vaccines we have in this country,” he said. declared.

Mallowes said that while most shows are going as planned, some are still being postponed and rescheduled. An artist, booked for a concert last week, has been postponed until next April due to issues with the delta variant.

The shelter has not yet regained its full capacity. A sold-out show has around 350 to 400 people and the venue previously allowed a capacity of 300 spectators after it reopened. Following a COVID-19 outbreak linked to a July event, Mallowes said they have since reduced capacity to 200 to 250 customers.

Mallowes suggested that people get vaccinated, saying they put others at risk when they don’t.

“We hope that people get vaccinated and that the numbers that are starting to rise will come down so that there are no more restrictions in place,” he said.

McMullen’s hope for the Whaling Museum and all of New Bedford’s other cultural institutions is that community members actively participate by visiting different museums and sites, attending a concert, or purchasing memberships.

“The Whaling Museum and probably every other institution you speak with broke the limit last year thanks to the support of the community. We can’t thank you enough,” said McMullen. “All the federal support is immense, it helps us to reposition ourselves and to grow. But we would not have survived last year without the members, our visitors and our supporters.

Standard-Times reporter Anastasia E. Lennon can be reached at [email protected] You can follow her on Twitter at @ aelennon1. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Standard-Times today.

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