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Nearly $200 million in federal relief money given to San Diego arts, entertainment and tourism groups

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program — created in response to the lengthy COVID-19 shutdown of live events that began in March 2020 — is proving to be a crucial and major source of relief funding for scores of independent San Diego County arts, cultural and tourism venues, organizations and related businesses.

The federal relief program provided nearly $200 million to 162 recipients across the county between last June and late December.

The biggest recipients include the USS Midway Museum, the Zoological Society of San Diego and the music talent booking agency Sound Talent Group. Each received $10 million to make up for lost revenues incurred by the COVID-19 shutdown. Close behind are the Belly Up Tavern and the Old Globe Theatre, which received $8,085,115 and $8,000,001, respectively.

The smallest amounts went to San Diego’s Roustabouts Theatre Company, which received $7,627.86, and Fallbrook’s Kristie Beasley Management, which received $5,200.

Of the $199,605,857 that has been disbursed here, approximately $92 million has gone to 63 venues, businesses and organizations located in Rep. Scott Peters’ 52nd Congressional district. The district extends from Coronado to La Jolla and inland to Highway 56.

“These cultural amenities that make San Diego a livelier, more fun and more stimulating place to live are tremendously important for those reasons. But they are also tremendously important economically as well,” Peters, a Democrat who was elected to Congress in 2012, told the Union-Tribune from his Washington, D.C., office. “I’m really pleased we were able to bring assistance to all these organizations.”

Peters’ office announced the $92 million amount in a statement released in mid-January.

While some of the biggest recipients are marquee attractions — including the Old Globe and the San Diego Symphony ($5,084,666) — a majority of the funds went to businesses and attractions whose profiles are not nearly as high.

They include such disparate entities as the San Diego Air & Space Museum ($1,804,621), La Mesa Oktoberfest ($213,723), Mainly Mozart ($74,838), the Borrego Springs Performing Arts Center ($51,043) and the La Jolla-based BMX Freestylers ($17,309).

“These grants were structured in a way that they could help mostly smaller businesses with (comparatively) higher overheads,” he said.

“And it was done in a pretty short time frame. We were hearing story after story of small local venues that were really struggling. Venues that have live music are often the first to shut down and the last to return. And they’re not like restaurants — you can’t do ‘take-out performances.’ So, the survival of these venues and organizations was really on the line.”

Indeed, it was.

“Without the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant funds, I’m not sure we would have made it through the past two years,” said Tim Mays. He co-owns two of San Diego’s smallest but most important indie-rock venues, the Casbah (which received $1,584,639) and the Soda Bar (which received $707,004).

“The money we received in both cases helped us recover funds we had spent during 2020 and early 2021 for rent, insurance, utilities, payroll, maintenance, etc.,” Mays said.

“These funds have also enabled us to operate over the last six months — since we reopened in July — at less than full capacity, with a reduced schedule and frequent postponements, cancellations and closures. We’ve been able to keep all of our key employees on salary and have about 90 percent of our pre-pandemic staff currently employed.”

Fellow promoter Chris Goldsmith, the president of Belly Up Entertainment, describes the $8,085,115 Shuttered Venue Operators Grant the Belly Up received as “not a windfall, but a lifeline” for the Belly Up. The 600-capacity Solana Beach music venue and restaurant, which has more than 100 employees, will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024.

“The grant was really essential and things would be drastically worse without this aid. It’s a rare example of aid working in the way it was intended,” Goldsmith said.

“The whole process was actually fairly frustrating, time-consuming, confusing and fraught with technical glitches and changes to the process. But at the end of the day, it was the difference between life-or-death for many of these businesses, so it’s definitely worth it.”

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program was created as part of the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits and Venues Act. It was subsequently amended by the American Rescue Plan Act, which President Biden signed into law in March 2021.

Eligible applicants who provided the required documentation were able to qualify for grants that equaled up to 45 percent of their gross earned revenue, with a maximum amount per applicant of $10 million. A portion of the grants went to eligible applications from businesses with up to 50 full-time employees.

To date, the Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Assistance has administered over $16 billion nationally through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. Recipients in the state of California received more than $2 billion of that amount.