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Austin City Council approves $15 million SAVES plan to help restaurants, music venues

The Austin City council today will consider a $15 million plan to keep the Austin music scene alive. The council calls the plan SAVES for "Save Austin's Vital Economic Sectors." (Photo: CBS Austin)
The Austin City council today will consider a $15 million plan to keep the Austin music scene alive. The council calls the plan SAVES for "Save Austin's Vital Economic Sectors." (Photo: CBS Austin)
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UPDATE: Late Thursday night, Austin City Council approved three programs--childcare relief, music venue preservation, and a business relief grant--for businesses affected by COVID-19.


The Austin City council today will consider a $15 million plan to keep the Austin music scene alive. The council calls the plan SAVES for "Save Austin's Vital Economic Sectors."

Live music is what draws regulars to support local bars and nightclubs, and it draws visitors and conventions to “The Live Music Capital of the World.” But between the pandemic rules that prohibit mass gatherings and the ones that keep the bars closed, local musicians haven't been able to play before a live audience in months.

“How hard has it hit live music in Austin?" local music consultant Nancy Coplin asks. "It has devastated and basically erased the live music scene in Austin."

On Thursday, the city council will consider $5 million for the Austin Live Music Venue Relief Grant going towards "live music venue preservation" to help make sure there's someplace for musicians to play when that's allowed again, another $5 million for the Austin Legacy Business Relief Grant Program to make sure the music business infrastructure is there, too, and $5 million is proposed for the Austin Childcare Provider Relief Grant for vulnerable child care providers impacted by the pandemic.

Speakers say this financial help cannot come soon enough.

"Those of us that have been providing the service since March 2020 through the current date now need financial support to save our organizations and businesses. Please consider supporting the school-aged children as well that are in the city, and thank you for a yes vote on the under-5 childcare funding. In the Covid times, we at the YMCA serve 4,000-plus children in licensed care, and we have been devastatingly affected financially just trying to provide services at an affordable cost to parents with expensive COVID-19 precautions in place. There are many other providers in the city that serve after-schoolers for school-aged children that have been financially impacted by the pandemic on various fronts," said YMCA's Joan Altobelli.

The Austin Childcare Provider Relief Grant awards will range from $2,500 to $60,000. Applicants for the Austin Live Music Venue Relief Grant may apply for $40,000-per-month grants for up to six months, but the total award may not exceed $160,000. The Austin Legacy Business Relief Grant Program awards will be either $40,000 or $60,000, depending on the business's tenure and number of employees.

Musicians all urged council members to pass these measures to get financial help to the businesses that help them pay their bills, but they're also asking for longer-term solutions.

"The pandemic has taken problems that needed addressing before, and magnified them exponentially. Although we're grateful for the funds from the SAVES Resolution, we need a plan that doesn't just staunch the wound, but actually sustains our industry long-term," said Lauryn Gould, a local musician. "The $5 million set aside for venues and the $5 million set aside for legacy businesses will not be nearly enough to keep our endangered industry from evaporating. It will just slow the process."

Council members agreed.

Mayor Steve Adler proposed postponing taking action on the funding for music venues and businesses to come up with better long-term solutions that could be better tailored for the specific needs for each struggling business.

"We know we can't help everyone who is hurting and needs assistance, but we can help some people and provide help that will ensure actual long-term sustainability. Many of the people in these areas were having difficulty before we even went into the pandemic. We need to make sure we use the opportunity of the cash infusion and our resources to hopefully end up with these businesses in a better position than they were as we were entering into the pandemic," Adler said. "We talked about gearing that up so we can help fashion some of the resolutions that might both help and provide that long term sustainability. We want to maximize the purposes as set out in that unanimously approved resolution a couple of weeks ago."

Adler said it would be important to connect struggling businesses with accountants and attorneys to get a better idea of their issues, and possibly get them better leverage with landlords and property owners. The mayor argued just giving money upfront for immediate assistance could hurt these businesses' bargaining power.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, Dist. 9, agreed there needs to be a more thoughtful approach to long-term solutions, but urged the delay in voting not be too long, because some businesses may not be able to survive much longer.

"I like the idea of creating a more sustainable solution with that additional - which you outline the accounting expertise really does - but I don't want to lose businesses in the meantime," Tovo said. "I want that thoughtful, sustainable approach, but I also don't want to lose those venues, and I know for some of them it really is a couple of weeks plus that additional time of getting attorneys on board. It could really add up to something that's untenable."

Council Member Ann Kitchen, Dist. 5, also pointed out the funding available might not be enough to achieve both goals.

"I think what you're suggesting is putting together two different purposes, which may be okay, but I don't think you can do the two different purposes at the level of funding you're talking about. I hear two different purposes. One of them is more of a bridge to help them survive. The second one is longer term sustainability. I understand it's not black and white in every instance, but it is two different purposes," Kitchen said. "I don't think $5 million is not significant for long-term sustainability for any real number for our legacy businesses. I like the approach you're taking. I think it's important to be more thoughtful and customized to what an individual's entity needs. I think that takes us much further than giving them $40,000 or $60,000."

Adler said it will be important to add language that would allow staff to provide immediate help to businesses not able to go through the process.

"If someone raises their hand and says, 'I can't, I don't have time for you to run your process, I'm going to die in three weeks, I'm going to die now,' we're giving the staff the ability to - one - let's give them an attorney or CPA real fast because it might not be they're actually going to die in three weeks. But if that expertise does not provide them, then yes, I want staff to have discretion to say we're going to help you sustain long enough to be able to get into this process, to see whether or not this is a program that can help you," Adler said.

So how are they paying for all this? The council is shifting millions to the city's emergency reserve fund to help keep the music industry and its infrastructure in place for when the crowds return. Six million will come from the money budgeted for capital improvements in the city's financial services department, $4.8 million will come from the city's Pay for Success Reserve Fund and $3.7 million will comes from right-of-way use fees. Those dollars will need to be put back before they're needed in future budgets.

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Still some worry all this won't be enough to save live music. Coplin says, “Is it savable? Yes, it is savable and I would encourage the city and any private partnerships with industry that fund other entities in town to consider dropping a little money in the tip jar."

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The city's financial policies do allow for temporary financing of what they call "unforeseen needs of an emergency nature."

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