Austin City Council approved a $15 million relief package to prop up live music venues, child care providers and restaurants that are struggling due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The funding is more or less a band-aid on a bullet wound, but is meant to provide some relief as state and federal relief packages have not materialized, and as hundreds of businesses are staring down possible closures.
Of the $15 million, a third would be dedicated to child care providers, and another third would be dedicated solely to live music venues. The remaining $5 million would be split between "iconic" live music venues, restaurants and arts organizations.
The fast-tracked plan, part of the SAVES resolution passed two weeks ago, would redirect city tax revenue and reallocate money within the budget for the businesses. Council's plan would rely on $8.5 million in surplus sales tax revenue and reroute $6.5 million previously budgeted for the city's Financial Services and Building Services departments.
Dozens of Austinites testified in support of the overall effort Thursday, though many argued the relief would not address the on-the-ground need for businesses – particularly restaurants.
Michael Fojtasek, owner and executive chef of Olamaie, said he and other restaurateurs have been given "eight weeks [of support] for a now eight-month problem." He urged council members to provide relief "commensurate to the need."
"We as restaurants are not looking for a handout," he said. "We're looking for a bridge to get to the other side, and we want to keep our people employed until we get there."
Kelsey Erickson Streufert of the Texas Restaurant Association said she had "serious concerns about the lack of dedicated money, as well, arguing that the industry is a tourism draw and employs tens of thousands of Austinites.
"The restaurant industry has lost more revenue and more jobs as a result of COVID than any other industry," she said. "Respectfully, this scale is not reflected in staff's recommendations, which dedicate funding to live music venues and child care specifically, but not to restaurants."
Leslie Martin, the owner of Bouldin Creek Café, said she's had to reduce staff from 80 employees down to 25. She said the "money will not make a dent" and that she's not expecting the First Street mainstay to last another six months.
Council Member Alison Alter said she understood their concerns.
"We have a lot of restaurants and hospitality [businesses] that we are trying to address that may not be 'legacy,'" she said. "That's what I think we're struggling with." Music venues, meanwhile, might be able to apply for relief under two programs.
Though restaurants were a part of the initial resolution, Adler said it couldn't "provide relief to restaurants across the city" and that more music venues would likely qualify for the "legacy" funds, compared to bars and restaurants.
"The scale of that kind of challenge is enormous and dwarfs the kind of dollars we're talking about here," he said.
For the past few weeks, members of Austin's live music community have pushed city leaders to dedicate a pot of money for music venues. The city's Music Commission laid out a plan Wednesday that suggests the city earmark at least $12 million in the SAVES package for the Music Venues Preservation fund.
The fund would work with struggling venues, and the money would be administered by a third party. City leaders will also consider creating an economic development corporation to act as that third party.
At Wednesday's Music Commission meeting, artist and musician Jonathan "Chaka" Mahone of Riders Against the Storm said he hoped the assistance will empower and assist Austinites of color and address systemic racism in the city's live music scene. While the recommendations lay out a framework for equitable relief, he said, they don't go far enough.
"[Venues have] already failed to serve these communities, so giving them money and saying, 'Please do better,' is not enough," he said. "A portion of this money needs to go to organizations led by people of color that have an idea of how to make a difference – how to change what these venues are doing."
Commission member Gavin Garcia said the plan would be a "working document" that could be tweaked.
A dedicated fund is something Council has considered on and off for the better part of a decade.
In 2016, Mayor Steve Adler backed a so-called omnibus plan to provide relief, inspired in part by a 2015 survey that found the city was near-unaffordable for working musicians.
After the closure of Red 7, Holy Mountain and other venues in 2017, an Urban Land Institute study suggested shrinking profit margins and steadily increasing rents put Austin's music scene at its proverbial "11th hour."
Graham Wilkinson, an Austin musician who testified before the vote, said he's been out of work since clubs shut down over COVID-19 concerns. He urged council members to do more for venues and restaurants alike.
"This is a desperate situation. There have already [been] venues that have closed. We haven't had a job in seven months, and City Council has met. Y'all still have your jobs," he said. "There's no way this is lost on y'all. Y'all have listened to us all morning long. But it's desperate. You can hear people who are about to cry."
Peppered throughout the discussion were calls from council members for federal and state help for Austin's ailing businesses.
Texas reportedly has $5.7 billion in federal CARES Act money that has yet to be doled out. If state leaders don't divvy up that money before year's end, it goes back to the federal government.
Mayor Adler on Tuesday went so far as to urge Austinites to call their members of Congress.
"We really do need federal help in order to deal with the scale of this challenge," he said.
House Democrats rolled out a revised COVID-19 relief bill Tuesday, though it's unclear whether that legislation could be passed any time soon. The Save Our Stages Act, a measure to provide federal relief money to bars, restaurants and live music venues, has stalled out.
The plan comes as Austin extended a ban on evictions for child care centers, bars, restaurants and live music venues through the end of the year.
This story has been updated.
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