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Austin Is Considering A $15 Million Plan To Prop Up Ailing Live Music Venues

Pat Buchta, executive director of the nonprofit Austin Texas Musicians, demands City Council put millions into a fund to help save Austin music venues.
Pat Buchta, executive director of the nonprofit Austin Texas Musicians, demands City Council put millions into a fund to help save Austin music venues.

Austin City Council could vote Thursday on a $15 million plan to help local industries like live music venues, restaurants and child care facilities during the coronavirus pandemic – as part of the  SAVES resolution passed two weeks ago.

The fast-tracked plan would redirect city tax revenue and reallocate money within the budget for the businesses. But it would fall well short of the expected need – estimated to be as much as $75 million for more than 1,500 businesses.

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."

In 2018, the Music Commission batted around the idea of  using tax revenue from hotel stays to prop up venues, and  Council OK'd a roughly $3-million-a-year plan to do so.

Looming over all this is the discussion of state and federal funding for the venues on which Austin stakes its claim of being the "Live Music Capital of the World."

At Tuesday's City Council work session, Council Member Leslie Pool said she wished state leaders would do more to provide COVID-related relief money.

"The state absolutely should be helping out. They haven't done anything. The governor hasn't even called a special session to have that consideration," she said. "So there's a huge gap in what the State of Texas is doing in order to protect its residents."

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 as 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.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber .

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Andrew Weber is a freelance reporter and associate editor for KUT News. A graduate of St. Edward's University with a degree in English, Andrew has previously interned with The Texas Tribune, The Austin American-Statesman and KOOP Radio.