Ravalli Republic: Two Hamilton theaters receive grant funding

by Michelle McConnaha

Two Hamilton theaters received relief grants through the federal Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program.

The two grants were awarded to the Hamilton Players and the Pharaohplex Theater. The Players received $37,489, and the Pharaohplex was awarded $321,241.

Over $8 million has gone to live venues, theaters and concert halls across Montana through the SVOG program.

“This grant is huge for us.” said Denise Rose, executive director at Hamilton Players. “It is going to make it so that we will be able to stay in existence until we can fully resume programming.”

Rose applied for the grant to improve the theater’s ventilation system, contribute to staff payments and help with insurance costs. The grants, backed by Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D.), are designed to cover up to 45% of each live venue’s yearly expenses.

The funding was awarded in a tier-based, first-come-first-served way, Rose explained. Theaters and venues that had lost 90% or more of their revenue over the last year were prioritized in the first tier. The Hamilton Players, which had lost just under 70% of its income, fit into the third tier.

Applying quickly was important – within each tier, venues were on equal ground. The applications that came in first were awarded first. The first day the application portal opened, the website crashed, Rose said. It took two weeks to get back up and running.

“Everyone waited with bated breath to apply,” Rose said. She got her application submitted the same day the website reopened.

The money comes at an important time. Though events may be opening back up, the costs of last year’s shutdown are daunting. And her theater doesn’t have great ventilation or space for extra safety. That’s what the grant will help with.

“I want to believe that the pandemic is ending,” Rose said. “But from an administrative standpoint, we can’t afford an outbreak in the cast because we don’t have understudies. I don’t want ‘super spreader event’ and ‘Hamilton Players’ to be in the same sentence.”

While Rose and the Players were excited about the grant funding, Joe McLean, owner of Pharaohplex, wasn’t sure he’d be accepting the money.

“We’ll turn around and write $100,000 of that back to the government in taxes,” he said. “When you’re a non-profit you can use all of it because you don’t pay taxes, but regular businesses are not in that category.”

McLean said he was nervous, because he felt taking public funds may come with strings.

“They may want us to carry this type of food or play this movie,” he said. “It may be a double-edged sword. I’m contemplating on whether I want to keep it or give it back.”

Last year, many small businesses got caught in the “crosshairs” of the Paycheck Protection Program, McLean said, because PPP funds were counted as taxable income.

“Most didn’t have income coming in, and you could only use the funds to pay employees,” McLean said. “They gave it all to their employees then at the end of the year the businesses had to come up with money to pay taxes on that money. It wiped some of them out. It protected the paychecks but wiped out the businesses.”

There is nothing on its website or grant description that suggests accepting SVOG funding would require a certain food to be served or movie to be played.

Rose, however, was excited and grateful.

“[The grant is] going to keep us open enough that hopefully we’ll be able to resume programming in 2022,” she said.