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Local cultural institutions receive funding from Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program

SALISBURY — After noticing the email notification pop up on his phone screen, Marcus Neubacher excused himself from the dinner table.

He stepped away from his meal and called Kelly Alexander, executive director of the North Carolina Transportation Museum, to give her the good news. The museum’s foundation had been approved for funding from the Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program.

“(Alexander) was thrilled and we got in touch with our board president of our foundation and the word spread after that,” said Neubacher, director of administration for the museum’s foundation. “We were very excited and felt very fortunate to be given the grant money.”

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program was born out of an effort to provide federal funding for music venues, theaters, museums and similar cultural centers that had to pause their normal operations due to the pandemic. Launched in late April, the SVOG program has since doled out $7.5 billion to over 10,000 venues across the country. About 250 organizations have received $155 million thus far in North Carolina.

The N.C. Transportation Museum foundation received $1.87 million from the program and joins the Gem Theatre and Tiger World as three local venues who were awarded grants.

The nearly $2 million was awarded specifically to the museum’s foundation, which supports the museum’s endeavors and helps fund its events. While the money won’t replace everything the museum lost during its temporary closure, Neubacher said it will be critical to help the foundation host some of the museum’s biggest upcoming events such as Day out with Thomas and Polar Express.

“Being that (the grant) focuses on live performances and live venues for events, we focused our attention on the cost that’s required to put on the Day out with Thomas and the Polar Express event,” Neubacher said. “Primarily the Polar Express event because it’s a long run, 25-night show that does take in a lot of costs.”

Day out with Thomas will be held on Sept. 24-26 and Oct. 1-3. Polar Express will be held on Nov. 12-13, 19-21, and 26-28 and Dec. 3-5, 9-12, and 14-23. Tickets are on sale now. Neubacher said the demand this year seems to have increased, especially for Polar Express. The two events provide a bulk of the museum’s revenue and were not held last year due to COVID-19.

While Neubacher said he was fairly confident the foundation would receive a grant through the program, Steve Morris, the owner of Gem Theatre, was less certain.

Morris wasn’t concerned about proving that the pandemic impacted the historic venue’s revenue. He was more worried about not including something in what he said was a “grueling” application process.

The intensive nature of the application process, Morris said, is a positive because it encourages accountability, but it might have also caused similar cultural venues to seek funding from the Paycheck Protection Program instead.

During the application process, Morris battled through many of the same issues that faced other venue operators, including the SBA’s website crashing and other technical glitches. Those problems were eventually remedied, but they created more uncertainty for Morris during the process.

“After making improvements to the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, the SBA is now delivering money quickly, efficiently and fairly to highly-impacted small businesses and venue operators that are critical to America’s cultural fabric and local economies,” SBA Administrator Isabel Casillas Guzman said in a news release. “When I began my tenure at the SBA, this first-of-its-kind SVOG program was not where I wanted it to be. I’m proud that, thanks to the hard work and dedication of our talented team, we have turned the ship around.”

The Gem Theatre was awarded $273,321 through the grant program. 

“It was surprise and a relief,” Morris said. “Mostly surprise, because I felt extremely confident that there had to be some piece of it that was incorrect or some piece of information that was forgotten. To get approval on the first pass was unexpected.”

Originally opened in 1936, the Gem Theatre is one of the oldest single-screen movie theaters in continuous operation today. The building has changed hands several times over the years, but is currently owned by the city of Kannapolis. The movie theater business itself is owned by Morris, who is also chair of the Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners.

The theater closed its doors from March to October during the pandemic last year, losing out on months worth of revenue. When the theater reopened, Morris said attendance was noticeably down.

“Once we reopened in October, that was before the vaccinations were quite as wide spread, so people’s comfort level was low so attendance was pretty poor during that time,” Morris said.

The theater temporarily closed again from February to May in 2021 for renovations to its HVAC and outside marquee. Enhancements to make the theater’s bathrooms handicap accessible are wrapping up.

When the theater started showing feature films again in May, Morris said attendance improved, but it’s still noticeably lower than a typical summer — its busiest time of year.

Morris said he is “wading through” information on how he can and can not use the grant funding, but he expects to use the money to cover lost revenue from the time the theater was closed.

“The funds will be used pretty much exclusively to cover the losses we’ve incurred during the pandemic and continue to incur,” Morris said. “Our numbers are still not back up to what they would normally be. So, we’re still incurring some losses.”

Tiger World, a nonprofit wildlife preserve and zoo located in Rockwell, received $344,758 from the grant program. Tiger World’s leadership declined to comment on the grant.

The SBA is still accepting applications for funding from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. More information can be found online at www.sba.gov. With $16 billion allocated for the program, there is still a significant amount of money available.

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