Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, is eligible for Paycheck Protection Program funding, thanks to the efforts of IAVM. (Courtesy venue)

Eligibility requirements sometimes opaque, but more venues are covered

Nine months after public assembly facilities shut down during the pandemic, industry officials are making headway toward securing more federal dollars to help venues prepare to reopen their doors.

In late December, President Donald Trump signed the $2.3 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act, which includes a $900 billion stimulus package to further help Americans get back on their feet.

For arenas, stadiums, convention centers, performing arts centers and other venues — all searching for financial relief through the long-awaited fifth stimulus package — the framework essentially covers two piles of money. 

One category is connected to the Paycheck Protection Program, which, similar to previous stimulus packages, provides money to help small businesses of all types keep their workers employed. 

The most recent PPP plan amounts to $284 billion, administered through loans by the Small Business Association, which are forgiven if the funds are used for eligible expenses such as paying employees during the shutdown.

The second pool of money is tied to the Save Our Stages Act. Its focus is on independent venues such as music clubs but could potentially extend to other building types, according to venue managers interviewed for this story. 

Save Our Stages, or the “shuttered venues” clause, as it’s described in the legislation, amounts to $15 billion in the form of grants allocated to entertainment facilities.

Bottom line, weeks after Trump signed the bill, many questions remain over which venues are eligible for stimulus money, given the complexity of the legislation and labyrinth of restrictions tied to receiving federal dollars.

Some requirements are tied to percentages of revenue generated by live performances, at a minimum of 70%, as well as the number of full-time employees, a number that must fall below 300 to be eligible for federal funds. 

One thing remains clear. In many cases, members of Congress still don’t understand how the business of public assembly works, despite lengthy efforts by trade groups such as the International Association of Venue Managers to educate senators and representatives.

“I’ve been on these calls and it’s like you’re speaking another language,” said Scott Mullen, executive director of TaxSlayer Center in Moline, Illinois. “The disconnect is with almost every elected official. A lot of times, they push things off to their assistants and things get lost (further) in translation.”

One small victory could loom large as venues get further clarity and file applications to tap into those funds. IAVM and lobbyist TwinLogic Strategies were able to get language changed in the bill’s final version to include publicly owned venues that were previously ineligible to apply for PPP money.

Last summer, IAVM pushed for Congress to amend taxation codes applied to nonprofits to include entities created by state and local governments that generate the majority of revenue from the production of live events.

The language evolved into the term Destination Marketing Organizations, which refers to the CVBs, authorities, commissions and other quasi-governmental nonprofits that govern many public assembly venues. Convention centers are now covered under that designation.

“That was a win,” said Tammy Koolbeck, executive director of the Iowa State Center and IAVM’s board chair in charge of the effort. “Part of the challenge is our members (as venues) are so diverse. We’ve been supportive and pushing to make sure government-owned venues are included in whatever was out there.”

For the arena sector alone, which makes up the largest sector of IAVM with 1,000 industry professionals among the 7,000 total members, there’s still a lot of confusion over whether they are eligible for federal funding. 

“Every city operates their venues differently,” said Brad Mayne, IAVM’s president and CEO. “That’s the issue, and because there is qualifying language, you have to meet all of those criteria. Save Our Stages has its rules and PPP has its rules. The good news is for the first time our venues are actually named in the language.”

For some building managers, the bad news is trying to figure out what it all means for their respective facilities. 

Mullen was scratching his head as he sifted through the massive 5,593-page stimulus document in early January. The midsize arena is a strong concert venue and home to minor league hockey and football teams.

“We’re still trying to make sense of it,” Mullen said. 

“What I’ve seen so far doesn’t look like we would be included in anything other than PPP, which is worthless to us because we’re not open,” he said. “Why would I bring back all these (workers) when they’re making more money staying at home with the stimulus bill? They wouldn’t have anything to do because there are no events. Until our governor allows us to open, PPP doesn’t help us.”

In Columbus, Ohio, the confusion is compounded for Mike Gatto, senior vice president of Columbus Arena Sports & Entertainment, the operations group for two arenas: Nationwide Arena, home of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, and Schottenstein Center, Ohio State University’s basketball facility.

As it stands now, Nationwide Arena appears to be eligible for PPP funding, thanks to IAVM’s efforts, Gatto said. The arena had been excluded from those funds until the DMO amendment was inserted in the newest stimulus package. 

Schottenstein Center, by comparison, is not eligible for PPP money, and Columbus Arena Sports & Entertainment officials are working closely with IAVM to see if the college venue can be included as well, Gatto said.

“It’s trickier for university-owned venues because schools receive funding on their own,” he said. “But in this case, it’s self-supporting and does not receive funding from the university.”

Nationwide Arena is owned by Franklin County and governed by the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority. Columbus Arena Sports & Entertainment runs the building for the county. In that respect, there are lots of layers to comprehend for everybody involved.

For lawmakers, there’s a misconception that the billionaire team owners own the venues where they play, which isn’t the case in most markets. In Columbus, that’s been part of the challenge for securing federal funding, Gatto said.

“The one thing we heard loud and clear from members of Congress is they didn’t want to help the professional sports owners,” Mayne said. “We tried to explain to them that many venues that have minor league teams and universities are built specifically for sports and they would be leaving those venues out because they couldn’t meet that percentage of events that are music- and tour-oriented.”  

Gatto, in his talks with the county and the authority board, stresses that arenas as a whole are community assets. 

“As you’re seeing in a lot of cases, we’ve been sites for COVID testing and Schottenstein Center is being looked at as a vaccine site,” he said. (The arena was later announced as a mass vaccination center starting Jan. 19.) “Throughout the pandemic, both arenas have held blood drives. We as building managers probably haven’t done as good of a job making sure people understand that and how we’ve been funded.”

In lieu of federal assistance, TaxSlayer Center and Nationwide Arena were both approved for money at the local levels to help pay for retrofits to their venues to protect patrons, staff and performers post-pandemic.

Nationwide Arena invested $300,000 in funding through the county for upgrades that include more X-ray machines to scan bags at gate entrances as the NHL implements a bagless policy. There are exceptions to the policy, and the machines will scan bags that patrons carry for medical reasons, Gatto said.

In Moline, the arena qualified for about $484,000 in state money to retrofit restrooms with touchless fixtures and install Wi-Fi in the seating bowl for mobile concessions orders. Officials also bought masks, cleaning chemicals and electrostatic sprayers and installed ultraviolet disinfection lights on escalator handrails. 

The total expense was $1.2 million to complete those upgrades, which had to be completed by the end of the 2020 calendar year for the arena to be reimbursed for those investments, Mullen said.

Those improvements were separate from the $1.5 million investment to renovate the arena’s 16 suites and the conference center. Mullen dipped into the facility’s reserve fund to pay for both sets of upgrades.

During the shutdown, eight full-time staff remain employed at TaxSlayer Center and 23 others were put on furlough.

“Everybody’s been doing something, whether it’s cutting grass, pulling weeds or shoveling ice and snow, as we did this week” in early January, Mullen said. “Our director of marketing (Stephanie Nagle) painted all the entrances to the suites and offices.”

“I can’t complain,” he said. “Give credit to Save Our Stages, which became the framework for everything. The fight is not over yet. There’s an assumption that all buildings have been taken care of but we’re not there yet.”