Music venues were among the first businesses hit when the coronavirus threat emerged in Austin in March. Uncertainty over the cancellation of South by Southwest quickly gave way to to near panic as shelter-in-place orders forced many local venues to close their doors altogether, with no end in sight.


While some businesses have since come back online, local music venues still are waiting out the virus and struggling to find ways to remain financially viable as large gatherings continue to be out of the question.


Austin City Council members on Thursday approved a pair of resolutions intended to help local music venues weather the coronavirus pandemic, and to find more solid financial footing when the crisis begins to wane.


The first resolution, brought by Mayor Steve Adler, directs the city manager to look into city-owned properties that could be used as music and arts venues or for other cultural purposes, and to create an economic development corporation that could be used to manage such facilities.


A second resolution more closely targets the Red River Cultural District, directing the city staff to look at changing several policies, including tour bus parking rules and fees associated with patio cafes and construction permitting that will be needed to increase social distancing when business returns to normal.


That resolution, proposed by Council Member Kathie Tovo, also calls for an economic development entity that could help streamline benefits to venues.


Tovo said the resolution came as a result of the Red River Cultural District asking the council for help.


“It's not a new issue that our music venues are vulnerable. Many of them don't own their own property, and so that makes them subject to the whims of the real estate market as areas of properties become more desirable,” she said. “We have lost very important cultural venues, music venues and theaters, and other kinds of creative spaces. So it's an ongoing concern.”


Tovo said creating economic development entities or corporations allows for more flexibility in managing properties and increased focus on particular goals.


For example, the Austin/Travis County Sobering Center is run by such an entity, which allows it to accept donations and work with the Travis County government, along with city government.


Another element of the measure asks the city staff to consider whether some money already earmarked for small businesses under the CARES Act could be used specifically for music venues.


“Music venues are probably going to be among the businesses that are able to get things functioning last among different businesses. So that makes it challenging for them to be competitive within some of the grant and loan programs at the local and federal level,” Tovo said.


The resolutions are the latest in a handful of initiatives council members have implemented to help protect musicians and the spaces in which they perform from shutting down permanently as the coronavirus pandemic presses on.


While many businesses have been allowed to reopen by state orders, albeit in limited capacities, music venues’ prospects for continuing business don’t look good right now, as social distancing at clubs and and larger venues is nearly impossible.


Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin Public Health, said Wednesday that large events were among the first things the city turned off as the coronavirus pandemic emerged and are likely to be the last things to come back.


He said events such as the Austin City Limits Music Festival and University of Texas football could be off until next year.


In late April, the council unanimously approved using $1.5 million in city emergency reserve funds to support musicians through the Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund. The council also approved using money from the Creative Space Assistance Fund to support venues, worth about $1 million.


Red River Cultural District Executive Director Cody Cowan said many venue owners are already underwater and drawing from personal savings to stay afloat. He said without CARES funding, prospects for surviving, even into the summer, are grim for many.


“We’ve already lost beloved institutions,” he said. “These stabilizing mechanisms will create better sustainability for music venues and the music ecosystem.”


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