After a disastrous rollout of a long-awaited government program designed to help music venues and arts presenters whose businesses have been devastated by the pandemic, Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, has signed a letter urging the Small Business Administration to “urgently fix” its broken web portal. The website crashed when it went live April 8, leaving organizations like Opera Maine in limbo.

Caroline Koelker, executive director of Opera Maine, said everyone in her business is frustrated, and “the ridiculous process is insult to injury with all we are dealing with trying to reopen under current circumstances.”

When she tried to access the portal April 8, she was among 14,000 others who had registered to apply for funding, with each uploading scores of supporting pages. “We are spending hours upon hours preparing hundreds of documents that we have to upload,” she said. “I can only imagine when they do reopen, as much as they have tested, when 14,000-plus organizations start to upload hundreds of documents at the same time, I have a hard time believing it’s not going to crash again.”

The portal was still on the fritz Tuesday. A note on the portal said, “Over the next few days, our tech team and vendors remain focused on testing the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant application portal; we aim to reopen the portal by the end of the week of April 18, 2021. As soon as the exact date is confirmed, we will provide advance notice. … Applicants may continue to register for an application portal account.”

Pingree was among more than 160 members of Congress urging the SBA to get its act together.

“With each passing day, more independent businesses are forced to shutter permanently or file for bankruptcy,” read the letter. “Landlords and banks are no longer permitting deferrals and are pressing for immediate payment of past due accounts; businesses are receiving eviction notices; mom-and-pop businesses are being forced to sell. The Administration’s announcement is critical to these businesses as they work to meet existing debt obligations during these unprecedented times.”

Curt Dale Clark, artistic director at Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, echoed that sentiment and expressed resignation in an email, calling the process frustrating and the prospects for meaningful assistance “becoming unrealistic the longer it takes.”

Koelker said arts groups and for-profit venue operators are waiting for the go-ahead to apply again, and most are prepared to revise their documents based on changes to the application process. They are hoping for clear communication and instructions, and people are worried if they make a small procedural mistake their application will be disqualified. It’s stressful and frustrating, she said.

“We are all sitting with all hands on deck ready to modify the documents,” Koelker said. “We are all really concerned the money will go quickly, and because it’s been such a debacle they won’t be as ready to add more funds as they otherwise might have been. That would be the worst possible outcome. … Everybody is just scared.”

Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director at Portland Stage Company, is trusting that things will be better when the portal goes live again. “What is hard is the SBA has never had to deal with trying to manage this sort of a program ever,” she wrote in an email. “It shows. I’m trusting they will take a deep breath, listen to people about what they need to do to make it work better and retry. It did not help they had every single performing arts venue and organization logging on at exactly the same time to try to enter their system. It was a disaster waiting to happen.”

Pingree is chair of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and other cultural agencies.

The letter also urges the SBA to establish open lines of communication and provide clear guidance to applicants.

“We also respectfully request you continue outreach to potential applicants and finalize guidance that will inform applicants of the precise requirements for eligibility and grant amount. We continue to urge SBA to implement a technical corrections process so reviewers may seek additional information if a submission is rejected due to an obvious technical error,” Pingree and her colleagues wrote. “This is consistent with the review opportunity provided under other federal grant programs and would ensure that eligible applications are not excluded due to an inadvertent failure to comply with a technical requirement of the application process.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.