The Morning Call (Sunday)

SAVE OUR STAGES

Lehigh Valley concert venues react to passage of $15 billion relief bill with cautious optimism

- Craig Larimer

Though COVID vaccinatio­ns for most may be weeks or months away, some Lehigh Valley concert venues are hopeful and waiting in line for a vital financial shot in the arm.

As part of the larger COVID-19 stimulus bill passed last week, $15 billion has been designated as Save Our Stages Act funding to aid local concert venues closed since March — including ArtsQuest, Easton’s State Theatre, Allentown’s Miller Symphony Hall and Bethlehem’s Godfrey Daniels listening room.

More than 3,000 independen­t

U.S venues including comedy clubs, performing arts centers, concert promoters and festivals across the country are represente­d by the recently formed National Independen­t Venue Associatio­n (NIVA). Most require additional money to keep their lights on.

The Save Our Stages Act was sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) in the Senate, Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) and Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX) in the House and championed by Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) with 230 bipartisan co-sponsors in Congress.

The aid package will provide grants to independen­t live venues — not ones owned by public or large companies — that have been mostly shut down by the pandemic since the spring. Klobuchar, one of the act’s biggest advocates, noted why the initiative has been so successful.

“We had red and blue states, people from country music to rap, from Pitbull to Lady Gaga, and it made a difference because sometimes people get caught up in infighting and other things,” Klobuchar said. “… We had each others’ backs and explained it to members — and the fact that we had 57 co-sponsors in the Senate out of 100 was extraordin­ary; we had over 200 House members on the bill, and we always made sure that it was bipartisan.”

While the act will not fix everything, it should provide much-needed relief to Lehigh Valley concert halls, most of which haven’t received federal aid since PPP loans back in the spring — if they received those at all. Though the actual dollar amount and timeline for distributi­on are not known at this time, local venue leaders are encouraged by the news of the aid package.

“We are honored to have been part of building NIVA,” said Kassie Hilgert, ArtsQuest CEO, “and would like to thank every Congresspe­rson who recognizes the importance of the arts in getting our nation back on its feet by passing this historical bill.

“Independen­t arts venues were the first to close and will be the last to open. We’ve been able to offer limited in-person and virtual arts programmin­g to keep our communitie­s connected and hopeful but we, along with all these independen­t venues from across the country, need significan­t help,” Hilgert added. “This funding is critical to ensuring that we can provide paid opportunit­ies for artists as well as get back to hosting the kind of programmin­g that before, generated over $230 million in economic impact in the Lehigh Valley, directly supporting small businesses, hotels, restaurant­s and more.”

Earlier this week, a promising sign emerged as ArtsQuest announced a series of live indoor concerts at the Musikfest Cafe in Bethlehem.

Easton’s State Theatre also has a few shows lined up beginning in March — nearly a year after the last curtain rose at the Northampto­n Street stage.

“NIVA is an amazing group to have been pulled together so quickly. To go from a non-existent organizati­on to getting a bill like this passed is really extraordin­ary. We are thrilled,” said Shelley Brown, President and CEO of Easton’s State Theatre. “It will benefit us, but at this point, we don’t know to what extent.

“I was grateful that this passed on several levels,” Brown explained. “It brought home the fact that these entertainm­ent venues are part of a huge economic ecosystem. We’ve been very blessed by the city, the county and the

community. We’ve received so much support in this awful time. But the reality is that we’re shut down with no income other than donated money.”

The nonprofit theater’s recent Your Seat is Waiting fundraisin­g campaign is on track to hit its $800,000 goal.

“I am thrilled that the Save Our Stages Act was included in the bill,” explained Al Jacobsen, Allentown’s Miller Symphony Hall Executive Director. “This was something that did not come out of nowhere. This was a bill that was in congress for several months. Details of it began over the summer and I’m quite supportive of

the direction and funding.”

Jacobsen emphasized that the money is not just for live entertainm­ent venues, as it includes a very wide variety of the industry for-profit and nonprofit. The financial aid includes presenters such as orchestras and performers. “Quite a large and appreciati­ve universe is eligible for these funds,” he concluded.

Smaller live music venues such as Godfrey Daniels’ listening room on Bethlehem’s south side are also looking forward to seeing some immediate relief.

“We are elated about the passing of the Save Our Stages Act ... and it’s another grant applicatio­n to complete. We’re very happy and anxious to see what comes of it,” Ramona LaBarre, Godfrey Daniels’ Managing Director. “We are very fortunate to have been around for four and a half decades. We are here because of our community, funders, donors and volunteer staff. We are the recipient of many great gifts.”

“I really feel for our other business partners and neighbors in our community. It’s really hard to watch that,” she added. “As a community we need to be together in this by abiding by the rules, to mitigate the spread of the virus and to get us (sooner) to a happy ending.”

LaBarre says she’s hopeful that Godfreys will reopen later in 2021.

“We’re unable to predict the future, but we’re looking to start again safely. There are many scenarios and we don’t know which way this is going to go, but hopefully the vaccine will make a big difference,” LaBarre noted.

Big questions remain regarding when and how much relief money these Lehigh Valley venues will receive. At Godfrey’s, LaBarre says they have specific and pressing needs to address.

“When we are able to reopen, can we do so at full capacity? Will we be able to keep our concession area open? Our room is small. Will we need to have plexiglass between the artists and the audience? These are the expenses we’ll have to consider,” LaBarre indicated. “These additional funds will be put towards operations and compensati­on for our artists, but how many artists will be out on the road? We’re just hopeful, just like everyone else.”

Morning Call Arts & Entertainm­ent Editor Craig Larimer can be reached at 610-778-7993 or at clarimer@mcall.com Follow Craig on Twitter @cklarimer

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 ?? THE MORNING CALL BRIAN HINELINE/SPECIALTO ?? Rick Wakeman performs at Miller Symphony Hall in Allentown.
THE MORNING CALL BRIAN HINELINE/SPECIALTO Rick Wakeman performs at Miller Symphony Hall in Allentown.
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 ?? CONTRIBUTE­D PHOTO ?? Jim Weider performs at Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem.
CONTRIBUTE­D PHOTO Jim Weider performs at Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem.
 ?? MORNINGCAL­LFILEPHOTO ?? Musician Trevor Gordon Hall performs at ArtsQuest’s Musikfest Cafe in Bethlehem.
MORNINGCAL­LFILEPHOTO Musician Trevor Gordon Hall performs at ArtsQuest’s Musikfest Cafe in Bethlehem.

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