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Missouri’s Struggling Live Venues Beseech Gov. Mike Parson: ‘We’re looking for a lifeline here’ Missouri Entertainment Alliance Seeks Grant Program to Survive Pandemic

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Above image credit: A crowd at recordBar in downtown Kansas City. (Contributed | Chris Campbell Photography)
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4 minute read

This week, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson received a letter from the Missouri Entertainment Alliance (MEA) requesting funding to save the state’s struggling independent live-entertainment industry.

In the three-page letter delivered to the governor and members of the MO CARES Act Working Group, MEA requests $11.25 million in funds to be provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES). The group seeks approval of the grant program ahead of the state’s federally mandated Dec. 30 deadline to distribute $1.3 billion in unspent pandemic relief money.

According to the letter, the request represents just 1% of the remaining funds and just 0.5% of Missouri’s total COVID-19 pandemic relief issued in the spring.

MEA, which represents 46 businesses across the state, proposes that $7 million of the allocation would be dedicated to supporting live music venues based on 2019 revenues. The remaining $4.25 million would go to independent-event promoters and production-related entities.

“The organization is a group of promoters, venues, production companies, festivals, that have all grouped together to try and weather the storm that is COVID,” says Jeff Fortier, co-president of Mammoth Live and show producer at the Uptown Theater.

The Uptown Theater is one of the more beautiful local venues.
The Uptown Theater. (John McGrath | Flatland)

“A good percentage of us at this point are going to lose between $150,000 and $900,000 dollars. That’s a lot of money to lose.”

Calls to members of the MO CARES Act Working Group were not returned on Thursday.

In the letter to Parson, MEA notes that the industry is reporting average losses of 60-80% in 2020. The industry posted more than $100 million in revenue in 2019.

Fortier, though, says the picture is even more dire than it appears. He estimates that a substantial number of businesses in the group have lost closer to 80-90% of their annual revenue, particularly those who have been unable to get creative with virtual livestreams or “curbside” alternatives.

MEA is primarily made up of businesses that are among the first to close and last to reopen during the pandemic.

Whether it’s a hole-in-the-wall punk club or arena that typically hosts NCAA games, the fact that there has been no pandemic relief since the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) earlier this year has MEA members hanging on by a thread.

Consider MEA member Keli O’Neill Wenzel and her company, O’Neill Events & Marketing. Wenzel’s small business is responsible for pulling off some of Kansas City’s largest and most popular events, such as the Chiefs Super Bowl Parade, Big 12 Basketball Tournament, Boulevardia and Planet Comicon.

Wenzel says PPP only covered 6% of the company’s income. Moreover, that money couldn’t go toward paying contract workers, which are crucial for the live event industry when you consider caterers, stage crews and security.

While laying off employees is the last thing she’ll do, Wenzel’s optimism is running low.

“Come first of the year, if federally and or locally we don’t get something, that’s where we are all going to crap because we know we have six more months of this,” she says.

The same goes for Dallas Gutschenritter at The Riot Room, who says business can hardly be done at this point.

“It’s unsustainable. I’m not sure that anyone could realistically recover losing that type of revenue at no fault of their own,” Gutschenritter says. “In our position, we want to do everything that we can to keep people safe and curb the virus — get over the pandemic. But when the smoke clears at what price does that come to a lot of small businesses that don’t have the means to sustain or have the capital to remain closed for what may be over a year?”

Fortier wants to make it clear that he doesn’t believe the state of Missouri has completely left the industry in the dust. But once high hopes for a second round of federal stimulus have dwindled, and he’s now calling on the state of Missouri to recognize the value of live music venues, comedy clubs, festivals and the performing arts.

A rapper on stage
Abnorm performed on stage at the Riot Room in 2016. (Contributed | PVOV Visuals)

A study cited in the letter suggests that the industry offers more than cultural value. It found that for every $1 spent on a ticket at an independent venue, $12 in additional economic activity is generated. 

Neill Smith, a former talent buyer with The Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland and AEG who was laid off in June, describes the economic ripple effect at street level.

“On any given night, just the Uptown Theater alone can bring 2,300 people to the area that wouldn’t normally be there,” Smith says. “Just down the street we could have 300 people at The Riot Room, 300 people at recordBar. A night between the Midland, Power and Light and The Truman, there’s 2,800 at the Midland, 4,400 people at Power and Light and 1,300 at The Truman.”

The potential economic fallout from failing live-performance venues should sound the alarm in Jefferson City on several fronts, according to Fortier. He compares the situation to the one faced by the auto industry during the 2008 recession, when the problems of car manufacturers quickly damaged parts suppliers.

“All these groups play a role in the ecosystem,” Fortier says, referring to surrounding restaurants, hotels and drinking establishments married to the money of the live entertainment scene. “It’s sort of like when you lose the coral reef, everything goes.”

Additional reasons for concern include losing local ownership of small business linchpins such as The Riot Room, recordBar, or Knuckleheads when mortgage payments are missed and, of course, the all-too-real threat of laying off career employees who have little to get by on.

Knuckleheads Saloon in the East Bottoms.
Knuckleheads Saloon in the East Bottoms (Cole Blaise | Flatland)

“None of us want a handout. We are all hard working people,” Fortier says, noting employees who are single moms or late in their career with little savings. “We’re looking for a lifeline here.”

As for the chances of the letter landing on Parson’s desk and inspiring a last-minute shot of stimulus cash before the year ends, Fortier looks to neighboring states for a dose of optimism. 

In Kansas, $5.8 million of support went to live-performance venues. It was a similar story in Illinois ($60 million), Oklahoma ($2 million), and Kentucky ($21 million).

“The choice is yours,” the letter concludes. “Spend $11.25 million to protect more than $1 billion in economic activity, 30,000 jobs, and save Missouri’s priceless cultural scene.”

Today on 90.9 The Bridge

Steve Tulipana, co-owner of recordBar, joins Jon Hart from 3-5 p.m. as part of 90.9 The Bridge’s winter funding drive.

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