Extended Lifelines: Rescue Funds Have Helped Keep Venues, Businesses Afloat

By Jenny Callison, posted Oct 1, 2021
Tony Rivenbark, Thalian Hall’s executive and artistic director, said COVID relief funds have been a lifesaver for the theater. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
It has been a long, bumpy 18 months for the operators of Thalian Hall. When COVID-19 shut down performance venues along with businesses of all kinds, revenues dried up and uncertainties set in.
“It’s been an incredible struggle, almost from week to week; we were not sure how we were going to make it,” said Tony Rivenbark, the hall’s executive and artistic director.
Thalian Hall is both a performance space and a producer of entertainment. And as an administrative organization, it runs the building for the city of Wilmington, responsible for its upkeep and operation. Rivenbark said his organization has lost more than $600,000 since the initial COVID restrictions kicked in in March 2020.
The organization applied for and received Paycheck Protection Program funds, part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of March 2020. That enabled the organization to keep paying its staff. More recently, Thalian Hall was one of 18 Wilmington-area venues, entertainment organizations and museums that garnered a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), funded through the American Rescue Plan Act of March 2021.
The SBA-administered SVOG program awarded $7.5 billion nationwide; those 18 Wilmington-area organizations received funds in amounts ranging from $2.7 million to just over $24,000. If all the program’s funds are not exhausted in the original round of awards, the SBA will consider making a second, smaller distribution to some grant recipients.
“[The PPP loan and SVO grant were] a lifesaver,” Rivenbark said. “Otherwise, we would have had to stop everything except for cleaning the building. The Shuttered Venue grant will help us get through this year into next year. I don’t expect things to be truly back until probably the 2022-23 season.”
When the state allowed limited in-person events, Thalian Hall planned to restart its Cinematique series to generate some revenue, Rivenbark said. COVID, however, had shut down film production, so there were few new films, and Thalian Hall instead launched a classic film series, Rivenbark said.
With in-person events possible at a more normal level, Rivenbark said Thalian Hall is looking at a limited, potentially break-even season for 2021-22, but there is still a great deal of uncertainty.
“How much of the audience is willing to return? There are lots of people who are ready to come back with mask mandates and so forth, but there is a segment of patrons that are still not ready to go out,” he said.
Rivenbark is quick to point out that federal financial relief programs provided critical help but don’t cover all the losses small businesses and nonprofit organizations have sustained during the pandemic.
Most recently, the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce announced that about $4.2 million in CARES money given to New Hanover County and the city of Wilmington has been distributed in the form of pandemic relief grants to small businesses.
The award amounts were $10,000 for businesses with two to 10 employees, $25,000 for 11 to 25 employees and $50,000 for 26 employees or more.
Businesses receiving the grants represent as many as 3,700 local employees, according to the chamber’s news release.
About 650 businesses applied, and 192 businesses met all qualifications for the grant. County CARES money will fund 106 companies with $2.3 million; and Wilmington’s CARES money will fund 86 companies with $1.9 million, the release stated.
In recognition of the nonprofit community’s ongoing financial need, the city of Wilmington announced in early September it will earmark $700,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to enable charitable and arts organizations to weather the continuing pandemic. The money comes from $26 million Wilmington received from ARPA.
Of that $700,000, $500,000 will be administered as grants to education and social service nonprofits through the Cape Fear Area United Way. The application deadline was Sept. 30.
The Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County will administer the remaining $200,000 as grants to arts and cultural nonprofit organizations. The application window opens Oct. 1 and ends Oct. 31.
Perhaps the workhorse in the array of pandemic relief programs has been the Paycheck Protection Program administered by the Small Business Administration and funded initially by $349 billion in CARES money. By April 16, 2020, the $349 billion was used up. Congress later provided an additional $320 billion for a second round of PPP, for which the application deadline was extended to Aug. 8, 2020.
As of July 7, 2020, about 760 small businesses and nonprofits in Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties had received $150,000 or more in PPP loans. About 590 of those entities are in Wilmington. Some applicants worked with their own banks to apply for the loans, but Wilmington-headquartered Live Oak Bank, a top SBA lender in the U.S., helped many local businesses and nonprofits navigate the sometimes- complex process.
It was a “monumental task” to process applications from Live Oak Bank’s own customers nationwide as well as other applicants in the community, but the bank was proud to play that role, said Huntley Garriott, the bank’s president.
“PPP was an extremely effective way to quickly deploy capital to hard-working business owners across our country, and in our hometown, to help preserve their businesses when the world shut down due to the pandemic,” he said. “We were proud to play a part in helping business owners get much-needed funding to bridge the gap between being closed and reopening.”
The following are some of the other grants and loans that have provided, or will continue to provide, help to businesses and organizations suffering from pandemic- related losses.
WHAT: An American Rescue Plan Act program that swooped in to assist many tourism-related businesses in Wilmington and beyond was the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. The program, which has now expired, was designed to provide restaurants with funding equal to their pandemicrelated revenue loss up to $10 million per business and no more than $5 million per physical location.

HOW MUCH: The program distributed $26.8 billion to food- and beverageservice establishments nationwide. As of late August, more than 130 restaurants, bars, caterers and food trucks in Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties had been approved for the RRF grants. The grant amounts ranged from $5,000 to about $3.6 million.
WHEN: Recipients are not required to repay the funding as long as funds are used for eligible uses no later than March 11, 2023.
WHAT: Grant applications are currently being reviewed in a much smaller ARPA-funded grant program through the National Endowment for the Arts.
HOW MUCH: The NEA was given $135 million to award in grants to help arts organizations pay for staff and overhead as they continue to bear financial hardships related to COVID. Of that amount, about $80 million is set aside for direct grants to individual arts organizations.
WHEN: The application deadline has passed; grant recipients will be notified in December and have up to two years to use the funds.
This continuing program provides up to $2 million to support small businesses that are experiencing a temporary loss of revenue caused by a natural disaster or – in this case – a pandemic. The money can be used to pay fixed debts, meet payroll and pay bills. More information is at or (800) 659- 2955.
The CARES Act gave the SBA funds to pay six months of principal, interest and any associated fees that its borrowers owe for all 7(a), 504 and Microloans that were in regular servicing status. Borrowers did not need to apply for the assistance; it was given automatically.
This debt relief period has largely passed, but there is another pocket of assistance.
The Economic Aid Act also authorized additional debt relief payments to 7(a), 504 and Microloan borrowers beyond the six-month period prescribed in the CARES Act. The level of assistance varies, based on when the loan was approved and will begin on or after Feb. 1, 2021. Borrowers should contact their lenders for information about this possible source of relief.
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