Minnesota music venues amp up #SaveMNstages bill for state pandemic relief

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While they wait for promised relief from U.S. Congress, music venues and concert promoters across Minnesota are seeking financial assistance from the state Legislature.

An all-Minnesota offshoot of the National Independent Venues Association — nicknamed MNIVA — banded together recently to push for a relief bill that has been introduced in both the state Senate and House.

Dubbed the #SaveMNStages bill, the legislation calls for grants to Minnesota-owned venues and concert companies, various licensing refunds and temporary relief from property, sales and income taxes. Modeled on recent Wisconsin legislation that offers $15 million in relief, it’s expected to be a part of budget talks in April or May.

A petition is circulating via MNIVA’s website and social-media channels asking music fans to encourage their representatives to support the bill.

MNIVA chair Shayna Melgaard said this state-level funding is needed on top of whatever federal money might come.

“We need help at all levels — federal, state and local relief — to make sure we can get back to work and help revive the Minnesota economy,” said Melgaard, who is a talent buyer at Sue McLean & Associates, the music promotions company that books the sidelined Music in the Zoo series.

Congress approved $15 billion for the live entertainment industry nationwide in December as part of a $900 million coronavirus aid package. However, shuttered venues across the country are still waiting for the #SaveOurStages money; the grant application process doesn’t begin until April 8.

“We can’t even apply at this point, and there’s no guarantee we will receive anything,” said Todd Carlson, owner of the TAK Music Venue near Moorhead.

In a virtual meeting last week of the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Committee, Carlson told state senators he lost more than $250,000 in potential revenue on canceled events last year and has used up all his personal savings — including his sons’ college funds — trying to keep up with “fixed operating costs that have not just gone away.”

“There’s no definite timeline as to when this will change, and it’ll take time to rebuild and book shows.”

Audiences at Minnesota entertainment venues are currently capped at 50% of capacity under Gov. Tim Walz’s COVID-19 safety guidelines, a limit that most in the industry see as economically unfeasible. Many concert promoters are waiting until at least fall to plan for indoor events at full capacity — and even then making a profit could be challenging if audiences and performers remain hesitant or safety precautions persist.

That’s too long to wait for state help, said Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, who introduced the Senate bill.

“They were all waiting for these federal grants, but those have just stalled, and who knows where they will go,” said Housley, adding that “every venue with a stage” would be eligible for grants, including community theaters.

The shutdown of stages has hurt other businesses, she argues: “Retailers, lodging, travel, restaurants — all of that is impacted. … We need to stop the bleeding somewhere.”

Other sponsors include Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL, Edina, and Reps. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, and Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth.

The effort has sparked an unusual union between competitors across the state — from Duluth’s Sacred Heart Music Center and Winona’s Mid West Music Fest to Twin Cities mainstays such as the Dakota and First Avenue.

Members of this Minnesota coalition have been sharing ideas for survival via regular Zoom meetings in recent months. One point of concern: Other states have already passed similar bills, including Michigan and Wisconsin.

“We already compete with [Wisconsin] for tours and events, and Wisconsin is more open than we are right now,” Melgaard pointed out.

“If we want to make sure Minnesota can remain competitive, we need local relief and a phased approach to reopening Minnesota safely, and we need it now.”

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • @ChrisRstrib

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