PITTSFIELD — Most Berkshire cultural venues have waited over a year to fully reopen, but they will have to wait a little longer to see if they qualify for economic assistance from the federal government.
The U.S. Small Business Administration last week opened its application portal for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, which provides $16 billion in economic relief for operators of performing arts venues whose finances have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, after much anticipation, Berkshire cultural entities that eagerly signed on when the application portal went up at noon April 8 ended the day disappointed and disillusioned when the SBA shut down the portal about five hours later, citing technical difficulties.
The SBA has said it will share advance notice of the time and date the portal reopens so that all applicants “can be prepared and to ensure fair and equal access,” but as of Tuesday, no reopening date had been set. Applicants can continue to register for a new account.
“We were all prepared, all ready to go, and then the mess started happening,” said Maggie LeMee, general manager of Barrington Stage Company, one of the Berkshire entities that spent the entire afternoon trying unsuccessfully to complete the online application process.
“It’s technology, what can I tell you,” said Nick Paleologus, the executive director of Berkshire Theatre Group.
On its website, the SBA did not state why the application portal had to be suspended temporarily, saying only that it is “working closely with the portal vendors to reopen as soon as possible.”
But, according to the Journal of Accountancy, the platform built for the program ran into technical difficulties almost immediately as venue owners and other eligible businesses began posting on social media that they could not upload supporting documents for their applications. The SBA acknowledged the technical difficulties in a tweet and said it was working to resolve the issues as quickly as possible.
The Shuttered Venues Operators Grant program is part of the recently approved American Rescue Plan Act. Those eligible can qualify for grants equal to 45 percent of their gross earned revenue, with the maximum amount available for a single grant award of $10 million. (The program reserved $2 billion for eligible applications with up to 50 full-time employees).
“We lost about half of our revenue over the past year,” said Jeff Rodgers, the executive director of the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, when asked why he was applying.
The program casts a wide net: everyone from live venue promoters, live performing arts organizations, theatrical producers, talent representatives, movie theaters, even museums, are eligible to apply (adult entertainment venues are not, according to the guidelines). Numerous Berkshire organizations that fit into the eligible categories said that they planned to apply, which meant the web traffic nationally probably was fierce as well.
“I heard that there were about 50,000 people who tried to log on at noon all over the country,” LeMee said.
Although prospective applicants had over a month to prepare for the application portal to open, there still were some last-minute curveballs. On the day the portal was to come online, LeMee said, the SBA sent prospective applicants a 58-page list of required documentation that included a few new items, before sending out a revised list a few minutes later correcting what it had just sent out.
“We were literally running up and down the halls,” LeMee said. “It’s a very complex grant, and they’re requiring a lot of documentation, reams of documentation, as well they should, to make sure it’s a legitimate request.”
Then the waiting game began.
“You get all ready to go, you finally get on the site, and you get ready to upload your first document, and the upload click won’t upload,” LeMee said. “That was when people began thinking that things we’re going to fall apart because you couldn’t go any further. If you can’t upload, you can’t move on to the next page. ... That was the major problem. No one could upload anything.
“We kept backing out of the portal and going back in,” she said.
Paleologus already had signed on to the application portal when he initially was contacted by an Eagle reporter April 8.
“For the last hour we’ve been just trying to register on the SBA site and we keep getting error messages,” he said. “So, we’re going to be at this all afternoon, I can tell.”
It was suggested to Paleologus that trying to register for the grant program was similar to the frustration that state residents have gone through when trying to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment.
“It’s that on steroids,” he said, laughing.
Added LeMee: “It was a crazy day.”