Dave Leiken, who owns and operates the Roseland Theater in Old Town, employed 270 people at his three concert-related businesses last year.

But the Roseland, which hosted a concert every other night in 2019, has been dark since mid-March. Because of social distancing rules, Portland's indoor concert venues will be the last businesses to reopen. Leiken probably won't put on another show in 2020.

"There's no money coming in," he says. "Zero. We're all pretending we're still in business. We don't know what's going to happen."

Leiken and the owners of two dozen private local entertainment venues, several of them nonprofits, are asking the Portland City Council for a portion of the $114 million in federal CARES Act money the city got earlier this year for COVID-19 relief. In a separate request, so is the operator of the city's large publicly owned venues, such as Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and the Keller Auditorium.

Arts and entertainment are a major industry in Portland. The city's performance venues lure newcomers, drive hotel, restaurant and transportation spending and, in pre-COVID-19 times, provided tens of thousands of jobs.

At City Hall, those businesses are competing for the last slice of CARES Act dollars with the needs of Portlanders who are broke, hungry and, in some cases, facing eviction because of the pandemic.

The venues have collectively asked for about $1.5 million a month in support ($800,000 for the private venues, $700,000 for the publicly-owned own ones.) After an initial rejection, the private venues have significantly lowered their request.

City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees City Hall's arts portfolio, is inclined to provide some funding to the venues. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is not. She says the money should go directly to the people who used to work at those venues and put butts in the seats.

Many Portlanders who a year ago might have bought tickets to rock shows are now unemployed. (Multnomah County's unemployment rate in May was officially 15.5% but in reality, experts say, probably significantly higher.) The Oregon Food Bank and safety-net meal providers, such as Blanchet House, just a few blocks north of the Roseland, cannot keep up with demand.

Much of the city's CARES money is already designated for shelter beds, rental assistance, Multnomah County's public health response, and other direct services. Of the less than $10 million that remains available for discretionary spending on COVID-19-related needs, city commissioners must weigh a difficult choice: Do they distribute cash payments to citizens in need—what they call "flexible household assistance"—or bail out the private and public venues?

Eudaly's chief of staff, Marshall Runkel, says: "We need to balance our approach so that in addition to meeting individuals' urgent needs, we also invest in helping people get back to work."

Hardesty says direct aid to working-class citizens should come before investing in the institutions that once employed some of them, even venues that will otherwise fail.

"Right now, my biggest priority is stabilizing people," Hardesty says. "The need for support during this time continues to be greater than what the city can respond to alone, but I know that putting money directly into the hands of Portlanders is the most effective way to ease some of the burdens created by this pandemic."

Aminé at Roseland Theater on Dec. 27, 2016. IMAGE: Henry Crommet.
Aminé at Roseland Theater on Dec. 27, 2016. IMAGE: Henry Crommet.

Since the crisis began, more than 600,000 Oregonians have filed for unemployment benefits. About 88% have had their claims successfully processed. More than half those filings come from the Portland metro area, which has been hit harder by job losses than other parts of the state.

Mary King, a professor emerita of economics at Portland State University, says unemployment figures, based on her experience, understate how many Oregonians are out of work—and don't capture the disproportionate impact on women and people of color, who are overrepresented in industries that have seen the greatest job losses, such as hospitality and retail.

King also says federal COVID-19 relief programs benefited Oregonians unevenly.

"The CARES Act for small business was more effective than the help for individuals and households," she says, pointing to continuing problems at the Oregon Employment Department, which is responsible for paying claims to individuals.

Leiken and his ally in the Independent Venue Coalition, Jim Brunberg, owner of Revolution Hall and Mississippi Studios, acknowledge the relief some businesses have already received, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, is helpful. But bringing back workers when there are no concerts to book doesn't necessarily make sense. Nor does the PPP cover venues' other major operating costs, such as mortgages, insurance, taxes and maintenance.

Portland's Centers for the Arts, which comprises the Schnitz, the Keller and three smaller theaters, is in the same boat as the private venues: No shows means no money. The situation is slightly different in that the centers' venues are owned by the city of Portland and operated under a long-term contract by the regional government Metro.

Even after laying off two-thirds of their staff, the centers' expenses run more than $700,000 a month. Right now, the publicly owned venues are burning though their savings.

"It looks like we can last until about the end of September," says general manager Robyn Williams. "Then we are out of business."

Williams says if the venues shut down completely, restarting them will be nearly impossible.

In addition to their economic benefits, Williams notes the facilities provide a subsidized home for 20 arts nonprofits, offer a diversity of programming commercial promoters cannot, and make available arts programs for 16,000 low-income students.

"All of that goes away if we go away," Williams says. "It's a totally unacceptable prospect."

Both Williams and her peers among the private clubs and theaters have been lobbying City Hall hard.

Commissioners hope to memorialize their spending of the CARES Act money in a resolution to be introduced later this week.

Williams says she doesn't know whether commissioners will support Portland's Centers for the Arts' request. Brunberg thinks his group has support from Eudaly and Mayor Ted Wheeler and opposition from Hardesty, and he's unsure about Commissioner Amanda Fritz. (Fritz declined to comment, saying, "Internal discussions are in progress.")

Wheeler hopes to help individuals and venues.

"The question here is how to maximize community stabilization," says Wheeler's spokesman, Tim Becker. "The mayor supports a package directing the majority of funds to household stability, and provides meaningful investment in local employers to ensure that Portlanders keep their jobs, and have jobs at the back end of reopening."

King agrees the economic multiplier effect that entertainment venues have is real. She acknowledges such businesses play an essential role in Portland's culture and economy. But the City Council should prioritize its constituents' needs for food and shelter, King says. "Household support comes first."

That's where Hardesty lands. "Rather than hoping aid trickles down to those in need," she says, "we need to put money directly in the hands of Portlanders and trust that they know to use the funds to gain some stability."

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the private venues significantly lowered their request for funding from City Hall after an initial rejection.