Gov. Tony Evers speaks to reporters in his office at the Wisconsin State Capitol in December 2019. (Photo: Molly Beck, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
As the Wisconsin economy continues to struggle six months into the coronavirus crisis, Gov. Tony Evers has announced $109 million in new and renewed grant funding for small businesses.
Among those that stand to benefit: music venues, hotels, restaurants, bars, nonprofit cultural venues, and privately owned movie theaters.
“It’s really focused on our mom-and-pops, our Main Street businesses. We want to get dollars into their hands,” said Missy Hughes, CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. “These businesses are so stressed. It would really help with what they’re facing.”
Evers announced the grants Tuesday, which will use money earmarked by the federal CARES Act that passed in March. The same day, President Donald Trump rejected Democrats’ latest offer for an additional COVID-19 stimulus package, saying he wanted negotiations on hold until after the election.
“Small businesses, including the tourism and lodging industries, are the backbone of our Wisconsin communities. The ongoing pandemic, combined with a lack of action at the federal level may force many of these businesses to shutter their doors for good,” Evers said in a statement. “That’s why we’re investing another $100 million in businesses and communities across our state. Our communities are in desperate need of additional federal support, but we can’t wait a moment longer to do what we can here in Wisconsin.”
Of that $109 million, Evers has committed $50 million to WEDC’s “We’re All In” grant program established this summer that awarded $65 million worth of grants to about 26,000 small businesses. The governor’s office will be issuing $5,000 grants to an additional 10,000 businesses, including restaurants, bars and salons. Applications can be filed from 8 a.m. Oct. 19 through Nov. 2 at revenue.wi.gov. Businesses that previously received “We’re All In” grants are still eligible to apply.
Additionally, five new grant programs will target different sectors of the entertainment and tourism industries.
A $20 million grant program will benefit Wisconsin hotels, a $3.7 billion industry that’s being decimated in 2020, with up to two-thirds of all Wisconsin hotels possibly closing within the next 12 months without additional support, according to the governor’s office.
Like so many other businesses and entertainment venues, The Riverside Theater reaches out to the City of Milwaukee through its marquee on Monday, March 16, 2020. (Photo: Angela Peterson / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
The pandemic has also put the live music industry on ice, with many venues across the state closed indefinitely. Evers has announced a $15 million grant program to benefit those businesses, and an additional $10 million for a previously established grant program benefiting nonprofit cultural venues.
“We are very very fortunate to be in Wisconsin and having the support we’re getting from Gov. Evers,” said Gary Witt, CEO of the Pabst Theater Group in Milwaukee. “This is a little victory and it feels nice. … It’s been a long time since we’ve had a little victory.”
In April, Witt co-founded the National Independent Venue Association, which has been lobbying Washington for aid, with about 90% of its nearly 3,000 members reporting they will have to shut down permanently without it. In Milwaukee alone, four entertainment venues have closed or announced their impending closure because of the pandemic.
Witt said eligible Wisconsin venues will be able to receive grants worth 25% of their 2019 sales or $500,000, whichever value is less.
“This doesn’t save us or save the industry in the state of Wisconsin, or solve all of our problems,” Witt said. “But it gives us a band-aid on a wound that needs stitches while we await assistance from our federal government.”
The movie theater industry is also suffering, with many theaters closed for more than three months only to reopen to low attendance and a lack of big titles from a hesitant Hollywood. In Wisconsin, privately owned movie theaters will be eligible to apply for relief from a new $10 million grant program.
“By acknowledging the tremendously dire situation that our industry is facing in the midst of this pandemic, Gov. Evers has created a program to help bridge us to the other side,” George Rouman, president of the National Association of Theater Owners of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, and owner of Rouman Cinema in Rhinelander, said in a statement. “We are thankful to be operating in a state that has identified our struggle, and also recognizes the cultural importance that our movie theaters have in their communities.”
But Rouman also said that the relief will be short-term for theater operators in the state, saying that without federal aid, 69% of small and midsize movie theater companies will have to file for bankruptcy or close down permanently.
On Tuesday, Evers also announced an additional $4 million for a grant program announced last month aimed at tourism businesses.
Track COVID-19 in Wisconsin: See the latest numbers and trends
Jeff Bollier of the Green Bay Press-Gazette contributed to this report.
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