Update 5:34 p.m. PT April 8: The U.S. Small Business Administration suspended the launch of the long-awaited Shuttered Venue Operators Grant on Thursday, after applicants were thwarted by technical difficulties. The grants are meant to provide a $16 billion lifeline to museums, movie theaters, live music venues and even zoos that have seen their revenue decimated by the pandemic.

But applicants like the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) said they could log into the SBA’s online application portal but not upload financial documents. That scene played out across the country. The SBA later shut down the portal “to ensure fair and equal access once it is reopened.”

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“This decision was not made lightly as we understand the need to get relief quickly to this hard-hit industry,” the agency wrote on Twitter.

The SBA said technical errors arose despite prior testing. It said it would announce the time and date the portal would reopen. Applicants can sign up for updates and see application checklists at https://sba.gov/svogrant.

Original story follows:

Back in February, Jeremy Longstreet stood in the empty cinema he owns in North Portland. The pandemic had darkened the St. Johns Twin Cinema and Pub for nearly one year. Longstreet didn’t know when he’d reopen, or how. But he knew he needed help.

He was waiting for the federal government to launch a major grant program for shuttered venues like his.

“It would mean everything,” he said. “It would mean that, hey, there’s a future. I’m still gonna stick it out. I’m still gonna try to get my business open and make a go at it.”

Now, launch day is here.

On Thursday, the U.S. Small Business Administration plans to begin accepting applications for the $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program – a long wait for Longstreet and more than three months after the federal government approved it.

Jeremy Longstreet opens the door to his shuttered movie theater, the St. Johns Twin Cinema and Pub, in North Portland on Feb. 22, 2021. He said a federal grant would "mean everything."

Jeremy Longstreet opens the door to his shuttered movie theater, the St. Johns Twin Cinema and Pub, in North Portland on Feb. 22, 2021. He said a federal grant would "mean everything."

Kate Davidson / OPB

The grants are meant to support live venues, theaters, museums and zoos whose revenue has been slammed by pandemic shutdowns and restrictions.

It is a big program. Eligible applicants can qualify for up to 45% of the gross revenue they earned in 2019, before the pandemic hit. There is a $10 million cap. The SBA says it will reserve $2 billion for smaller operators with up to 50 employees.

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The SBA is taking a different approach to the program than it did with the initial rollout of the Paycheck Protection Program, with its frantic race for first come, first served loans.

Shuttered venue grant applications will still be accepted on a first-in, first-out basis. But they’ll be allocated to priority groups according to who lost the most. During the first two weeks of awards, applicants who lost 90% of their gross revenue from April to December get first dibs.

Some venue operators with smaller financial losses worry money will run out before it’s their turn. The SBA estimates it will award 15,000 grants in total.

For some businesses, a shuttered venue grant would be a lifeline. For others it would be a valued piece of the funding patchwork needed to exit the pandemic.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland has already received PPP loans as well as funding from the CARES Act.

“That has been hugely important in just keeping us stable,” said Love Centerwall, vice president of development at OMSI.

But that funding hasn’t made up for the museum’s estimated revenue loss of $8.3 million in 2020, he said. Nor can it increase foot traffic in the museum. OMSI clocks more than 800,000 admissions in a typical year. In 2020, fewer than 200,000 people visited.

“Right now, we have ‘Dinosaurs’ which is hugely popular, and it’s been fully booked, but at reduced capacity,” Centerwall said. “Revenue is still significantly down just because we can’t fill the halls.”

Renewed coronavirus restrictions announced this week for Multnomah County mean the number of visitors allowed inside OMSI will shrink again on Friday.

On the eve of the shuttered venue grant launch, Jamie and Sonny Hess were still figuring out what to do.

The co-owners of the Blue Diamond Bar & Grill in Portland serve food and drinks, like many live music venue operators. The food brings in more money, but people come for the blues and R&B.

Jamie Hess was struggling through an eleventh-hour conundrum. Should they apply for a shuttered venue grant on Thursday, or wait for more information to be posted about a future SBA grant program for restaurants?

“I have until midnight tonight to figure that out,” she said. Hess and other potential applicants actually have until the window officially opens at 9 AM Pacific time.

With incomplete information, the stakes felt high. Hess said the Blue Diamond’s revenue plummeted almost 60% in 2020.

“It’s our survival. I don’t think without one of these grants that we will make it through the summer,” she said. “It’s basically that blatant.”

Next week the venue plans to shut down inside music again. They’ll rely on limited performances outside as COVID-19 cases rise once more in Multnomah County.

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