As Austin venues, restaurants and childcare services fight to survive, city to search for more relief

Closed businesses in downtown Austin July 21, 2020 (KXAN Photo/Frank Martinez)

Closed businesses in downtown Austin July 21, 2020 (KXAN Photo/Frank Martinez)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council is slated to vote Thursday on a resolution that would push the city to search for additional relief funds to support music and art venues, restaurants, bars and childcare services. Every one of the eleven council members has signed on as a sponsor for this item so it is likely to pass, though it will be discussed further before a vote.

While the city has offered multiple financial relief programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, this resolution would ask city staff to turn over additional stones in search of more funding that could be used to meet the need.

Thursday’s council meeting kicked off with emotional testimony from Austinites in the music industry, restaurant industry and childcare work, sharing accounts of financial damage from the COVID-19 pandemic, which they fear may soon be impossible to recover from.

Musicians and venue representatives warned city leaders that without further financial relief, Austin may very well relinquish its title of “Live Music Capital of the World” as more venues are forced to shut down, and financial relief options continue to be inaccessible to artists.

Childcare providers described their industry in Austin as “ravaged” and told council members stories of people who have been unable to access childcare during the pandemic.

Hospitality and service industry owners who have joined together in organization called Good Work Austin, called for the city to allocate $75 million to help them survive.

Mars Chapman, the owner of local independent business Casey’s New Orleans Snowballs said due to the financial strain of COVID-19, his business which has been in Austin for more than two decades “is in danger of disappearing.”

Compared to 2019, sales at Casey’s are down 55%, Chapman explained. He said that is due to a combination of factors: moving to an online-only ordering model since early May, reduced demand, closures and measures to keep the workplace safe and healthy.

Chapman called on the council to commit to the financial assistance Good Work Austin has called for.

“Without this level of financial assistance for our hardest-hit sectors, Austin’s culture, the brand of cool we are famous for, will evaporate.”

Mars Chapman, owner of Casey’s New Orleans Snowballs

Dr. Joan Altobelli, Vice President of Licensed Childcare for the YMCA of Austin and a board member of the Texas Licensed Child Care Association emphasized to the council how much financial and organizational strain the pandemic has placed on childcare providers.

“The unintended damage done by the necessity of shutting down the city and then allowing the return of childcare under strict, expensive precautionary practices, continues to threaten the existence of the entire childcare industry,” Ci said.

Meanwhile, she noted, financial support to parents has been backlogged by waiting lists.

“Nonprofits like YMCA of Austin are doing what we can to provide what financial assistance we can to families in need, but our resources are quickly dwindling,” Altobelli summarized.

The resolution before the council would direct Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk to find funding options for financial assistance to help the most “vulnerable and at-risk live-music venues, arts venues, restaurants/bars, and childcare providers.” There are multiple motions to tweak and add to this resolution which will likely be discussed as the council takes up the discussion of this item later today.

Call for a music venue fund

Many Austinites who spoke before council Thursday called specifically for the creation of a Music Venue Preservation fund of $10 million. The fund would come from the dollars the city identities as a result of this council action.

The city has already made grants available for artists themselves through the Austin Music Disaster Relief fund (the grants for this have already been expended, the city website says), by contrast, this resolution would focus specifically on funding venues.

At Thursday’s meeting, many musicians and venue owners also expressed disappointment with the financial relief programs the city already has offered. Joe Ables, owner of Austin music venue The Saxon Pub, said he applied for all the city relief he was eligible before but was turned down for each grant.

“We need to act now,” he said detailing the financial consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on venues like his, warning that many venues are “on the brink of closing.”

Ables, who has owned and operated Saxon Pub for more than three decades, said when it comes to dire straits for the music industry “no one has ever seen anything like this.”

Ables urged the council to create the Music Venue Preservation Fund saying, “I’m asking you to get this done before San Diego or Nashville takes that title we all brag about. “

Nakia Reynoso, a musician and the president of Austin Texas Musicians, made the same call for action, citing Austin venues like Threadgill’s, Baracuda and Shady Grove which have been forced to close permanently during the pandemic.

The building that once housed Austin music venue Barracuda now sits empty after the venue’s 2020 closure during the COVID-19 pandemic. August 2, 2020. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

“You have the data,” Reynoso told the council.”You know what’s coming. Yet time and time again when Austin music is given some promise of hope with an ordinance or resolution, council waters it down.”

He went on to suggest musicians and music venues need their own forms of relief separate from other small businesses.

“Austin isn’t the small business capital of the world,” Reynoso continued.

“Other businesses aren’t driving billions of tourism dollars to the city’s bank accounts. It wasn’t just any small businesses that made Austin a beacon to the rest of the world. It was the musicians creating music in live music venues that sent that signal out. But that signal is dying. Our music venues are out of time.”

Nakia Reynoso, musician and president of Austin Texas Musicians

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