Tampa City Council moves to formally ask for state and federal aid supporting small stages

Councilmember Joseph Citro made the motion asking for a resolution during the Sept. 10 meeting.

click to enlarge Tribal Style plays a streaming-only 'Road to Reopen' concert at Crowbar in Ybor City, Florida on July 11, 2020. - Michael M. Sinclair
Michael M. Sinclair
Tribal Style plays a streaming-only 'Road to Reopen' concert at Crowbar in Ybor City, Florida on July 11, 2020.

Local music venues gained a glimmer of visibility and support during a Tampa City Council meeting when councilmembers voted unanimously on a motion to draft a resolution requesting financial support from the state and federal government to fund the languishing entertainment industry, which has been effectively shut down since March.

Councilmember Joseph Citro made the motion during the Sept. 10 City Council meeting for the City of Tampa to stand in support of Senate Bill 4528, also known as the Save Our Stages Act, and requested that the resolution be forwarded to the city’s federal and state legislative delegation, as well as the office of Gov. Ron DeSantis. Councilmember Citro had argued, “These venues are of critical importance to the culture of our city. Federal and state financial assistance is desperately needed in order for these venues to survive."

In response to his motion, Deputy City Attorney Andrea Zelman forwarded a tweet to Council Chair Guido Maniscalco regarding a recent executive order to open bars at 50% capacity this Monday, signed by Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation secretary Halsey Beshears. Maniscalco requested clarification on whether music venues would be included in this.

Even if they were, Citro was intent on making a motion for the resolution. He had already consulted with Deputy City Attorney Morris Massey, but asked City Council Attorney Martin Shelby if he would write up the resolution. Citro said after five months of venues being shut down without sufficient financial assistance, “I would just like to see it get done.”

City councilmember John Dingfelder raised the issue of finding more local funding for nonprofit arts and cultural institutions during the Sept. 10 CRA meeting earlier in the day, adding that,“We don’t have an endless supply of money.”

Dingfelder suggested the CRA might have more latitude than the city budget and mentioned reaching out to Tampa Theatre and others by seeing if there could be a “CRA grant program for large downtown or Channelside institutions that we can work on.” And unlike CARES Act money, the city wouldn’t require a December 31 deadline to use the funding. 

Federal CARES Act requires money to be spent on capital improvements, City of Tampa Attorney Morris Massey told City Councilmember Orlando Gudes. But CRA funding could go to cover gaps in the funding. For example, if the County offers half a million dollars (like the county did for the Straz) but the project costs a full million, CRA funds could come in to help if the CARES Act money doesn’t cover the remainder.

City Councilmember Bill Carlson added that not supporting the arts properly, “could be disastrous for us.” He acknowledged that many venues have survived by “hobbling together money from different sources,” and that the city should fill in the gaps in funding by supporting a $2 million CRA fund to which arts venues could apply.

Massey submitted a memo to council that suggested using the CRA funds to address the issue, citing state law that CRA money can be used to address slum and blight, with COVID-19 problems encompassing the latter problem.

Councilmember John Dingfelder made a motion to initiate a major-facilities grant program for Downtown and Channelside for $2 million available to “major cultural institutions” for capital improvement to city facilities as well. 

During the CRA presentation portion of the meeting, Urban Development Manager for the Ybor CRA, Courtney Orr, presented details on letters of support to Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, requesting they co-sign Senate Bill 4528, The Save our Stages Act to “provide immediate and much-needed financial assistance to eligible independent venues economically devastated by the COVID-19 mandated closures.” 

The Ybor CRA also sent a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis to ask him to help build a roadmap to reopen entertainment venues when it’s deemed safe. The letters have also been sent to the county outlining the city’s suggestions that the county allocate funding to arts and culture.

In recent weeks, many Tampa residents have been emailing City Council and reaching out to them via social media. The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) has also been pleading with government officials at all levels to keep the live music industry afloat amid the international shutdown of tours and large gatherings, which many have dreaded may be the death knell of the industry. NIVA is calling on congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act.

The Save Our Stages Act is "crucial" to saving independent venues according to Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who said it would provide $10 billion in grants under the Small Business Administration program while offering up to $12 million to live venue owners. It could cover six months of expenses and ameliorate the economic impact of COVID-19.

Schumer is joined by 28 bipartisan cosponsors in support of the legislation. Artists like Foo Fighters, Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Vampire Weekend, The Recording Academy, Spotify, Association of Performing Arts Professionals, and others have also signed on.

More than $9 billion in lost ticket sales could loom over the overall industry if shows don’t return by year’s end, but the impact on local culture could be irreversibly devastating.

Ybor City is to Tampa as Brooklyn is to New York, as the Red River District is to Austin, Texas, and as the French Quarter is to New Orleans.

One live music venue that has defined the local music scene is the Crowbar. Tom DeGeorge is the owner and a member of the Ybor Chamber of Commerce, as well as NIVA for which he acts as Florida Captain. He’s more than fatigued from trying to keep his business from falling prey to the pandemic, but he’s as determined as ever to prevail over the daunting task of getting proper funding not only for himself, but for his industry. DeGeorge is grateful that he’s been lucky enough to do the majority of the advocacy he’s undertaken.

“But there's clearly a gaping hole in our industry right now we should all recognize that,” DeGeorge lamented politicians unwilling to ask for help on behalf of live music venues like his in fear of ruffling feathers.

“If we lose this thing, we all lose. Period,” DeGerge added.

In addition to federal money, DeGeorge is calling for the state, counties and cities to step up and bring relief for venues that were the first to close and will be the last to open. He wants local officials to lobby DeSantis to divert more CARES act money to venues like his.

“There should be additional grant money for the bars, as well,” DeGeorge added. “You can't give the restaurant industry the same amount as people that were licensed as bars as when we were shut down six times as long and just say ‘Good luck, guys. You're on your own.’"

On Sept. 2, the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners voted to approve a multimillion-dollar relief package for eight non-profit cultural centers—David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa Theatre, ZooTampa, Florida Aquarium, Tampa Bay History Center, Tampa Museum of Art, Glazer Children’s Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI)—which are all eligible for up to $500,000 reimbursement for coronavirus-related supplies, equipment, and facility improvements to protect employees and guests. The board also OK'd a total of $4.1 million for safety improvements at the Amalie Arena and George Steinbrenner Field (which the county owns).

DeGeorge thinks county commissioners missed the mark by neglecting smaller stages.

According to a report by WTSP, Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman said of the larger venues, “The reason we concentrated on these venues is because the county has made significant capital investments in those venues and, for us, it's a protection of our investment”

Murman declined to acknowledge support for specific smaller venues, “Our process is flexible enough where we can consider on a case-by-case basis,” she suggested. “But we're not going to be able to help everybody."

DeGeorge said he wouldn’t be surprised if many commissioners don’t attend shows at the smaller venues, and thus might not understand why they should also be fighting for their survival. “I just don't believe that we, as a community, have done enough to make them understand that,” DeGeorge said.

The national touring industry, DeGeorge argues, is dependent on the success of a network of smaller stages to nurture the budding talent on the scene, “to get them to the point where they're going to be playing the Straz Center. We are the fuel for the festivals, like Gasparilla Music Festival. I got letters of support from the Straz, and GMF as well, because it's true. It's not fair for us to expect our elected officials to understand that. We have to make them understand it.”

Lorrin Shepard, Senior VP/COO of the Straz said at Tampa City Council on Sept. 10 that people will have an expectation for capital improvements in any building where people can mass gather. In order to use their money allocated by the CARES Act, much of the capital investment must be utilized by the end of December. 

“We’re looking at three areas” Shepard said. One is disinfecting and sanitizing. The second category is hygiene. Third, is new ways of maintaining social distancing through barricading equipment that limits contact with people from a safe distance. Protecting musicians in the orchestra pit is also part of the plan.

Putting on a show for a 4,000-seat venue seems more daunting than ever before, but DeGeorge said even 400 seats will be impossible to imagine any time soon.

“There's certain types of music I can't do, because there's no way I can do like a hardcore show or a metal show. At least I'm not going to do it and expect people to socially distance; there's just no way. So the only way to do it is to get this thing under control.”

When the City of Tampa failed to prevent a large gathering at the historic Cuban Club on Labor Day weekend, city spokesperson Ashley Bauman defended the lack of consequence stating, “The event planned at the Cuban Club was entirely on private property, and based on the agreed upon conditions and limitations, the event technically meets the requirements of the governor’s executive order.”

DeGeorge doesn’t think allowing such events is helping get the virus under control.

“It makes no sense at all, them saying, 'Well, you know, we didn't do anything with the Cuban club, because they didn't technically break any of the restrictions that were left in the ordinance,'” DeGeorge said. “You know, I think that's pretty messed up, especially within our district, when we're all regulating the shit out of ourselves.”

The Cuban Club is without a doubt an iconic landmark and cultural institution in Ybor, but DeGeorge points out the district as a whole offers significant value not just to Tampa, but all of Hillsborough County.

“There’s a dozen small stages in Hillsborough County. Five of them are in Ybor City. Think about how important that is to not just the ecosystem of our festivals and the arts, but how important that is just to that historic district. Ybor City will look very different by this time next year if we don't get that kind of proper funding. Because our places also feed our community there.”

And even though as of writing this DeGeorge is technically allowed to open at half-capacity, he’s not ready to open yet.

“People are begging me to open because they're like we need you to open to help increase our dinner circles and to get these people back…but I have to open when I believe it's right when I believe it's safe,” DeGeorge added. “And in the meantime, I'm going to continue fighting for what we all need in general, because you know this, you've been following this. I've said a million times, opening Crowbar does nothing to solve the problem.”

Because for one, DeGeorge said it won’t bring tourists back any sooner. “And number two, it's not gonna eliminate the absolute crater of debt or debt that we all got built up being closed for six months. And without those touring artists, if we don't receive any sort of funding, many of us will go out of business.”

 He sees no way for tours to come back until next year, “Because I see nothing that tells me we're going to be in a situation where we've got this virus truly under control by that time, where any artist is going to feel comfortable.”

Even if they're comfortable, DeGeorge doesn’t see any of them continuing that tour down in the southern states, “especially Florida, if our numbers continue to look like what they look like. So we need the funding.”

In a scare to the local music community, DeGeorge even threatened to move his business out of state if he didn’t get any help from the local government. “You sometimes have to shake things a little bit...I don't think I would have gained the ground over these last two weeks if I wouldn't have been as extremely vocal as I was after I heard about the performance art center. They got their funding. And I talked to a lot of people that said, ‘Hey, you know, those were for COVID upgrades.’ It doesn't matter. We all need COVID upgrades too. Many of us spent our own money to do the COVID upgrades. All those places got a nice round dollar. They all got half a million dollars.”

He suggests Tampa follows in the footsteps of cities like Nashville and Austin to support the smaller venues. What money that has come in for DeGeorge so far has not been nearly enough.

“I'm going to lose close to a million dollars in gross revenue. And I know for a fact that I had to take out $250,000 in loans, and $150,000 of that was emergency EIDL low interest loans. The other $100k that I still have to pay back and the other $100k was personal loans that were much higher interest rate.”

That pales in comparison with his actual lost revenue.

“We are going to be out probably $700,000 in gross revenue, even with the local shows we do for the fall, alright, because I'm not going to be open, usually October, November, December, I'm averaging 25 dates a month, there's holiday parties, there's all these things, and it's sold out concerts with 400 people will be operating in a quarter of my capacity, you know, and we're in the middle of a pandemic. So yeah, I'm not going to do what I would normally do. And then I've got to look at what my sales gonna be for 2021. I'm not going to come back even in March of next year and do what I normally did.”

Adding insult to injury, DeGeorge’s PPP loans didn’t cover much.

“I got a $20,000 PPP loan and $20,000 in grants from Hillsborough County, and I have no problem admitting that $40,000 worth of grants is what I got. And by the way the $20,000 grant I got 75% of that for payroll. It happened while we were closed. So $15,000 worth of that money I gave away for my staff to stay home...We've been closed this whole time… I mean, who takes out loans for the building to sit empty, and to lose money every single month?”

Councilmember Citro hoped the federal government would have taken the lead on providing greater funding, but he told CL that help hasn’t come fast enough.

“And that's what prompted me to help lead the charge in getting a resolution from the city of Tampa, because this is much bigger than the city of Tampa.

Tampa, created the “One Tampa: Relief Now, Rise Together” grant program under Mayor Castor which offered local homeowners and smaller businesses here in Tampa with $2,000 for critically impacted businesses in Phase I, and up to $4000 for rent or mortgage payments and up to $1,000 for business-related utilities for phase II. But Citro also told CL, “the smaller venues, some of these clubs have bills of $30,000 a month between rent, electricity, staff and whatnot. This is much bigger, and I think the federal government and the State of Florida are sitting on their hands on this. So that's what prompted me to ask for this resolution.”

Citro used to sit on the Ybor City Development Corporation, or YCDC, and said that simply letting venues reopen doesn’t go far enough.

“I've seen so many great acts at places like Honey Pot, Ritz Theatre, and The Crowbar, you know, those type of places. And even though DeSantis has finally eased up on bars, this doesn't cover those small venues for concerts, and even at 20% capacity, 40% capacity, 50% capacity, you're still not making the money.”

Although Citro is glad to see that the Straz got some relief, he said it’s prime time small venues got some attention.

"Some of these smaller venues have gotten some CARES tax relief. I know that one has gotten $20,000, but nothing to the extent of what the Straz.”

But in this case, Citro said that ironically, smaller venues have larger problems than that of others in the city. “I think it has to go beyond Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners. We have to look to the state. We have to look at the federal government.”

After Citro's motion passed, Council Chair Maniscalco asked, “Anything else, sir?”

Citro replied, “One more thing. Go Bolts.”

“Yes, sir,” affirmed Maniscalco.

If the City of Tampa and Hillsborough County can work with the federal government to gather the same resolute unity for preserving the arts in the bay area as they do for their support for our championship hockey team, then there may yet be hope for a brighter, and louder future for the local music scene.

After 20 years working in the community and 14 under Crowbar, DeGeorge wonders why he has had to fight so hard. He’s frustrated that the State has required many bars to seek food licensing to serve alcohol, which he has claimed is a money grab considering the state reopened at bars at 50% only after dozens of local bars got their food license.

“When we were almost dead, the state said, Hey, we're gonna open up this loophole for you guys. And we're supposed to be thankful after we had been shut down for four and a half months, that you opened up a loophole for us? I disagree. I don't think that's the time to be thankful and humble. I think that's the time to be angry. Like what took you so long?”

With no tours on the books DeGeorge told CL that without funding that outlook is still too bleak. 

“I've talked to some of these other business owners. Like they're not going to make it. I know what funding everybody's got, what they haven't got, and how much they've lost this year. There's no way out of it. There's no way out of it. Not unless we get funding. And we honestly need the state to realize that by the strategy we're going through right now, we are not going to get any tours down here anytime soon, which is going to be a huge economic hit not only to our small stages, but to festivals, the performing arts. So we're getting a double-triple-whammy.”

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