ST. PAUL — Minnesota Democratic U.S. Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips this week led more than 200 of their congressional colleagues in calling on the Small Business Administration (SBA) to improve a $16 billion program designed to help small event venues survive the coronavirus pandemic.

In December, Congress approved Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program to be carried out by the SBA to help keep endangered independent venues afloat while live events and shows were indefinitely put on hold. In a Wednesday, June 16 letter, U.S. representatives questioned why, six months later, roughly 400 applications for grant dollars have been approved out of more than 14,000 applicants.

In their letter, the representatives said the SBA’s slow rollout is “becoming increasingly untenable” for independent venues who are on the brink of going under.

“Their banks have threatened to call in the full amount of small business loans, they do not have the funds to pay their landlords full rent, and they cannot retain staff,” the members of Congress wrote. “We are hearing from venue operators who are days away from closing their doors if these funds are not sent soon.”

Standing on stage at The Garage, a music venue located in Burnsville, Craig at a Friday news conference appeared frustrated at the SBA’s handling of the grant program while $16 billion “are just sitting there.” She pointed to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a similar grant program also rolled out by the SBA, that she said has been deployed much more successfully.

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“So there's a model inside the agency right now that they should turn to, they should look to, to be able to administer these programs much more effectively,” she said. “And to be candid with you, the SBA has not provided an adequate explanation to Congress why these funds and the rollout has been delayed.”

With her was Jack Kolb-Williams, who is the the executive director of Catalyst Music, which owns and operates The Garage. The Garage is an all-ages venue, meaning there are no 18- or 21-and-up age limits.

On a typical show night pre-pandemic, Kolb-Williams said the energy in The Garage “is so infectious.”

“Just imagine a room of 300 young people seeing their favorite artists who they look up to… seeing themselves represented onstage,” he said, choking up. “Sorry, I get a little emotional thinking about it.”

While virtual concerts have provided an outlet during the pandemic, Kolb-Williams said he’s ready to see the venue filled with people and music again.

“Just to feel a sound system hit you, there’s nothing like it.”

Along with Craig and Phillips, Minnesota’s U.S. Reps. Jim Hagedorn, Betty McCollum and Ilhan Omar signed this week’s letter, as well. The SBA did not immediately return Forum News Service's request for comment.