Council Recap: The Beat Goes On, Ever So Slowly

Photo by John Anderson

City Council approved at this week’s meeting (Thursday, Dec. 3) a number of grant programs to help music venues facing closure, but many advocates fear that the relief won’t come soon enough.

The city will soon begin accepting applications for relief funds awarded through the Live Music Preser­va­tion and Legacy Business Relief grant programs, initially established in October with Council’s Save Austin’s Vital Economic Sectors (SAVES) resolution. In addition to finalizing the program guidelines for these, Council directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to allocate $15 million in revenues from hotel taxes to support “iconic” Austin businesses, beginning with a $2.5 million investment for the newly formed Austin Economic Development Corporation to distribute. Council also approved modifications to the city’s Chapter 380 tax abatement program to allow commercial landlords to be reimbursed for their property tax payments if they negotiate reduced long-term rental agreements with their tenants.

None of these programs will be able to help the city’s struggling music venues immediately. The SAVES grant programs will not open to applicants for at least another two weeks, and they require venues to partner with attorneys or accountants for “technical assistance” before they can access the initial $20,000 in relief either program will provide. Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District, reminded Council that the circumstances are dire.

“The year is drawing to a close and venues still do not have access to SAVES funds approved by Council 60 days ago,” Cowan said. Expediting release of relief funds would be an “excellent Christmas present” for venues, their staff, and the performers who have been unable to work throughout the pandemic. “Today you can give that hope to the city’s working-class creatives that all is not lost,” he concluded.

Callers speaking on the agenda items expressed frustration that the “technical assistance” requirements established by Council are enigmatic and cumbersome. Council members, particularly Mayor Steve Adler, have expressed their hope that by pairing businesses with accountants and attorneys who can help restructure leases and business plans, the venue owners will have greater chances of survival beyond the pandemic. Before the economic fallout from COVID-19 devastated the local music scene, many owners were already struggling to stay afloat amid Austin’s explosive real estate market.

Modification to the Chapter 380 program received an even less enthusiastic response. “If you need any further proof of that disconnect between our industry and city management,” Jeanette Gregor, co-founder of the Amplified Sound Coalition, told Council, “I urge you to look at the proposed guidelines … that suggest venue owners talk to their landlords about lowering rent and extending leases. Y’all, come on. Do you think there’s a venue owner in this city that hasn’t had that conversation multiple times?”

The programs are meant to bridge a gap left open in the absence of federal stimulus funds. Money for the two SAVES grant funds, totalling $10 million, would come from the city’s emergency reserves; the “iconic venues” fund would be seeded through a reallocation of Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue.

This latter idea has been championed by Council Member Ann Kitchen, based on an interpretation of state law that has been untested in court. Basically, the resolution asks Cronk to use HOT revenue to help sustain, in various ways, the types of local businesses that serve as tourism draws, thus meeting the state requirement that these revenues be used for tourism promotion, historic preservation, or arts and culture. The plan calls for $15 million to be set aside for this purpose over five years.