The Small Business Administration launched with great fanfare a long awaited portal for that would allow arts venues closed down by pandemic to apply for grant money to cover rent, utilities, insurance and other accumulated expenses. Unfortunately, the site was shut down due to technical difficulties on its first day of launching.
In a statement, the SBA explained that the agency “temporarily suspended the portal and will re-open it as soon as possible to ensure all applicants have fair and equal access.” The SBA said it would share advance notice of the time and date before the reopening so that all applicants can be prepared and have equitable access to the program, which will award grants on a first-come, first-serve basis within different areas of priority.
After opening the application window Thursday, the agency made it clear in a news release issued late Wednesday night that the grants won’t start going out until later this month.“The SBA is accepting SVOG applications on a first-in, first-out basis and allocating applicants to respective priority periods as it receives applications,” the release said. “The first 14 days of SVOG awards, which are expected to begin in late April, will be dedicated to entities that suffered a 90% or greater revenue loss between April and December 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The second 14 days (days 15–28) will include entities that suffered a 70% or greater revenue loss between April and December 2020. Following those periods, SVOG awards will include entities that suffered a 25% or greater revenue loss between one quarter of 2019 and the corresponding quarter of 2020.”
The technology issues weren’t the only concern. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the SBA expressed “serious concerns” with the control environment and tracking of performance results with the SVOG program, which is designed to provide eligible applicants with grants equal to 45% of their gross earned revenue, up to a maximum of $10 million. The report criticizes the audit plan established by the SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance (ODA).
The ODA’s plan allows for a total of no more than 10 audits across all of the low-risk loans but this limitation is problematic because program officials estimate that the majority of SVOG grants will be characterized as low-risk, meaning that most grants will “be disbursed in sweeping lump sum payments with minimal requirements and expectations for post-award accountability,” the report said.
Noting that the ODA estimates the SBA will receive 15,000 applications and that the average SVOG size will be $1 million, the inspector general said that the low level of auditing and spending reviews for low-risk grants means that “the bulk of grant funds will not be subject to a reasonable degree of scrutiny.”
The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program (SVOG) is a $16 billion grant program that was set up to help qualifying live music venues, independent theaters, museums and other live-event spaces hit hard by pandemic-prompted shutdowns. It was passed with a bipartisan effort as a part of the coronavirus relief package signed into law by President Trump in December. But it’s taken a long time to arrive: the agency has said that it’s a first-of-a-kind program for them, and they had to build it from the ground up.