The Small Business Administration experienced a rough launch for its grant program intended to help long-beleaguered venues. After so long without a lifeline, though, time is running thin.



The $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant was supposed to be a glimmer of hope for small live event spaces hit hard by the pandemic. Except as soon as the application portal launched online, it crashed. And as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, it has left struggling venues in the lurch.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Liz Tallent is the marketing and special events director at The Orange Peel, a music venue in Asheville, N.C., that usually holds 1,050 people. Tallent and her co-workers spent weeks getting all their documents ready to apply for the SBA's grant program. On the day the portal was supposed to open, they were set.

LIZ TALLENT: I was at one computer, and we had somebody else at another. And then we had three people all in one office.

LIMBONG: Then noon came and the website seemed to be up.

TALLENT: Everybody was just trying, trying, trying.

LIMBONG: All in all, she says, they spent seven hours trying to get through.

TALLENT: But none of our supporting documents or evidence, which is really the meat of the application, would ever upload.

LIMBONG: This was two weeks ago. Earlier this week, dozens of congressional members signed a letter to the SBA imploring them to get the program up and running, quote, "businesses are receiving eviction notices. Mom-and-pop businesses are being forced to sell." The SBA didn't make anyone available for an interview, but did say in a tweet that their tech team is aiming to reopen the portal by the end of the week. To a certain extent, Tallent can empathize.


LIMBONG: In 2007, The Orange Peel hosted the Smashing Pumpkins for a residency, a big, big event for a venue that size.


THE SMASHING PUMPKINS: (Singing) Freak out...

LIMBONG: When tickets were supposed to go on sale, their website crashed.

TALLENT: It was a disaster. I mean, you know, it was, like, just exactly this experience from the other side.

LIMBONG: Of course, Smashing Pumpkins tickets are one thing. The survival of a business is another. Take Cine El Rey in McAllen, Texas. It's a renovated movie theater that holds concerts, comedy shows, wrestling matches and more. It's also a nationally recognized historic space that's been serving the border town community there since the 1940s. Bert Guerra is the owner.

BERT GUERRA: So the theater is not just an entertainment venue, it's rooted into the truth of our area. So I feel very responsible for preserving that truth.

LIMBONG: Regional actors get their start there. Families go there with their kids. Then years later, those kids start taking their kids. The SBA grant program was signed into law back in December by President Trump. It took months to announce when people could even start to apply. And the uncertainty around the portal crash has made things tougher for Guerra.

GUERRA: We don't know what to tell our creditors. We've been telling them ever since it passed nearly five months ago, you know, there's grants coming. We're going to get it, and we should get it. And we're the poster child.

LIMBONG: Guerra says he has six weeks before the place belongs to the bank.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.