A sense of normalcy and relief returns to Houston’s live entertainment venues

On Friday morning, US Senator John Cornyn bent down to greet Curly, a Linnaeus two-toed sloth who had traveled from the Houston Zoo to the Heights Theater for a panel discussion on a grant program that has helped both venues survive. to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t think he recognizes me,” said Cornyn, joined by Isabella Casillas Guzman, administrator of the Small Business Administration.

“It recognizes apples,” explained Lee Ehmke, president and CEO of the Houston Zoo.

Curly, presumably, had taken a nap during a previous meeting with the senator and his staff. But now he was marching back and forth along a pole, upside down, munching on slices of fruit and pieces of carrot.

Cornyn and Guzman were in Houston to talk about the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, created by the Save Our Stages Act, written by Republican of Texas and US Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota.

The nearly $ 15 billion program was authorized as part of a $ 900 billion COVID-19 incentive package in December 2020. Although its first few months were plagued by a glitchy website, it has now been distributed. $ 1.16 billion to support 758 music venues, museums and other live entertainment venues in Texas.

“These were completely closed institutions: the first to close, the last to reopen,” said Guzman, adding that more than 80% of the beneficiaries in Texas were “the smallest of small” businesses, with fewer than fifty employees. full time.

Edwin Cabaniss, owner of the Heights Theater and president of the Music Avenue Alliance-Texas, explained that when closures began in March 2020, he felt confident the theater could overcome this crisis, perhaps with the Paycheck Protection Program. But he soon realized that his team was facing “a bitter struggle for survival,” so he contacted Cornyn’s office.

“I know the world really likes our oil – and now our natural gas – but I think the biggest export to the state of Texas is its culture and its music,” Cabaniss said. “So we wanted to tell that story. But we knew we would have to meet our good fiscally conservative friends on the Republican side. “

It helped, he added, that a Texas Music Office winter 2019 study found that music-related business and education directly accounts for more than $ 4 billion in earnings in the state each year, as well as supporting nearly 100,000. jobs.

The Texas legislature also passed a measure, in 2021, that provides some support for the state’s small music venues.

The SBA itself is a relatively small federal agency, with an annual budget of just under $ 1 billion. He has never had the opportunity to administer a program like this, or the Paycheck Protection Program.

But, Guzman said, the SBA was determined to help small American businesses “beat the data,” as she herself said. A 2020 study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency found that 40% of businesses closed due to a disaster never reopen and another 25% fail within a year. For small businesses, those with fewer than fifty employees, the statistics are even bleaker.

Retired Lieutenant General Doug Owens, president and CEO of the Lone Star Flight Museum, said the museum, which opened in 1990, moved from Galveston to Houston Ellington Airport in September 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

“We had our first kind of normal year in 2019,” Owens said.

Now, however, a sense of normalcy is returning to these Houston places and, with it, a feeling of relief.

“Of course there are headwinds, but these are just normal business problems,” Cabaniss said. “They are not pandemic problems. They are not hurricane problems. It’s just, you know, inflation and things like that. But we can face it. “

Cornyn reflected that it was a feast day.

“I love it when government programs work,” he said.

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