'The biggest group effort I’ve ever been a part of’: Austin club owners join national lobby for struggling independent venues
Four weeks ago, with live music venues throughout Austin well into the grip of financial hardship from closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stephen Sternschein didn't see much cause for optimism.
The co-owner of the Empire Control Room & Garage and The Parish was facing the same rent and utility costs—estimated at $40,000 per month for most clubs—as his peers, with no prospect of being able to restart his businesses anytime soon. And he knew other owners around Austin were starting to dig deep into their savings to pay their bills and hold off on possibly deciding to close for good.
Something big had to be done to save independent clubs in Austin and around the country.
And so, with a consortium of fellow owners and promoters around the country, the one-time entertainment attorney made dozens of calls and organized online meetings to help form the National Independent Venue Association.
That group has taken up lobbying efforts to push for federal aid for more than 1,300 member clubs, and expects to see action taken in Congress this week that could deliver a much-needed win.
"I choose be optimistic and believe we are going to have our sunny day, and that it's going to happen soon," he said. "I can't read any tea leaves and say that tomorrow we're going to be open, but four weeks ago I just thought that we really need some piece of good news to look forward."
The association has garnered attention quickly, with press outlets like Rolling Stone and the New York Times laying out the case for why music venues that are historically thin-margined even in good economic times face such a precarious future.
The packed-in, sweaty social dynamics of live concerts make them an unappealing prospect during a time of quarantine and social distancing. Plus there's the wrinkle that the live acts needed to draw audiences into clubs aren't in a hurry to get back in front of crowds of people who could be virus carriers.
"What we're struggling with is [figuring out]—what is the right moment to reopen? In terms of how long we'll be stuck financially, it's definitely going to be through the end of this year, if not through the end of next year," Sternschein said.
"It almost doesn't matter when we open our doors because for a period of time of at least six months we're not going to be in a position to make money, and will probably lose a bunch of money. People want to come back and party but they're not going to do it now and feel safe."
That upside-down business model means venues will need financial lifelines to stay afloat and have any chance to reopen.
There is some cause for optimism for Austin venues. City leaders are examining how much of the $170.8 million available from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act could be used to assist those businesses. Earlier this month the Red River Cultural District proposed that $2 million per month of closure would be needed to preserve the 54 small businesses that have been identified as primarily live music venues by the Music Venue Alliance of Austin.
NIVA estimates slow action or lack of large-scale relief could cause up to 90% of its member venues to close in the coming year.
Those dire prospects make possible votes in Congress this week crucial. Sternschein, who has led fundraising efforts for the group that helped to hire a lobbying firm, has spent his time engaging with major brands to begin building long-term support for venues in a post-pandemic economy.
He said prospects for federal financial aid in the Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has never been a concern, and that a letter of support from Sen. John Cornyn filed late last week gives a needed boost for a vote in the Republican-majority Senate.
"I'm going to frame that [letter] and put it on my wall," he said. "It represents the biggest group effort I've ever been a part of. It's so incredible because we went from nobody knowing who we were as independent venues … even eight weeks go no one in politics outside of Austin knew about this part of music other than big festivals like Coachella. Nobody would have had one word to say about independent venues. Today, we have a majority of the House and Senate supporting initiatives we've brought to them in the past few weeks."
Much is still to be decided, but the possible combination of assistance at the federal and city levels would provide some needed financial cover for Austin venues that are crucial to the city's reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World.
So far the most high-profile music spot to close during the pandemic is the Shady Grove restaurant on Barton Springs Road. Over the weekend the owners of dance club Plush, which was a prominent space for live acts during South By Southwest, announced the club will not reopen, creating the first pandemic-related vacancy among the cluster of music venues in the Red River Cultural District.
Cody Cowan, executive director of the RRCD, said many owners are "holding their breath underwater," tapping into their personal savings and trying to wait out the closures due to the coronavirus. While he continues to push for local relief at city hall, Cowan said NIVA's work gives hope to venues around the country.
"We're in the game, and it seems like the level of camaraderie that's happened nationwide is inspiring," he said. "Steve represents the creative hunger we have in our community. Many folks are pretty invisible but it's the handful of people like Steve who have this relentless drive for innovation and sustainability who have allowed us to come together and evolve past our previous tribalism."
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Whether you’re making the switch out of a gas-powered car or thinking of adding another EV into the mix, tax credits could go away for your desired car.
The climate-health-tax package could become law soon. And while Democrats had aimed to expand consumer tax credits for battery-powered vehicles Sen. Joe Manchin called for some supply chain requirements in order to go along with the broader bill.
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation estimates that’ll cut vehicles eligible for the credits from 72 to 25. Brands eligible for a tax credit include BMW, Ford and Rivian. As Electrek reports, sales can push manufacturers over the predetermined threshold of qualified sales, and Tesla is part of that group.
For some EV owners, however, this incentive wasn’t an influence on their decision anyway.
Anuarbek Imanbaev, VP of the Tesla Owners Club Austin, said the credit played very little role in his decision to get a Tesla.
He views his first Tesla as a more luxurious type of purchase that’s a different approach than what other car shoppers have.
“That's a different segment,” Imanbaev said. “I think in that segment, it was nice to have, but it wasn't anything that affected whether I would buy the vehicle or not.”
Still, Imanbaev thinks for those shopping for vehicles up to about $65,000, the tax credit could increase demand.
Reginald Collins, a sales professional at Onion Creek Volkswagen, has talked to the clients who weigh cost more when buying a vehicle and he said the tax credit is a “huge deal.”
“On top of the fact that you're not paying for any gas. And you're saving Earth, it's not a combustion vehicle,” Collins said, referring to Volkswagen’s ID.4 that people can buy with a $7,500 tax credit.
What’s its appeal over a Tesla or other electric vehicles?
“Just the flexibility of it, it's much less expensive,” Collins said.
And while EVs require some wait—Collins estimates the ID.4 taking about 8 to 10 months— he also said that the plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee is making for faster production.
“If you need parts, you can order them from the states instead of ordering them in Germany,” Collins said. “So if you have customer issues they can get parts quicker.”
So if you’re trying to get a deal on an EV, you may need to act quickly. The Senate sent the plan, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, to the House earlier this week meaning it could be headed to President Biden’s desk soon.
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A chain of plant-based restaurants and wellness centers is getting its start in Austin.
Following time in executive-level positions with Austin-started Whole Foods Market, Betsy Foster, former senior vice president, retiring co-founder and CEO John Mackey and former Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb are onto their next project: a startup called Healthy America LLC.
The venture raised $31 million from investors earlier this year to create a national network of wellness centers and vegetarian restaurants.
Bloomberg reported on a now-closed job posting for Healthy America, which described it as “an evidence-based lifestyle company, leading the convergence of culinary, healthcare, and wellness.”
The posting mentions an aim to “meaningfully transform the health and wellbeing of individuals.” Aside from food, educational, fitness and spa services may also be offered.Incorporated in 2020, Healthy America seems to be at an office near 38th Street and Lamar Boulevard, the Austin Business Journal reports.
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