Businesses and organizations in Wisconsin’s tourism and entertainment sectors are breathing a sigh of relief after Gov. Tony Evers announced Thursday they are eligible for $142 million in federal COVID grants.
The money will go to industries hit hard by the pandemic, including live event venues, movie theaters, summer camps, minor league sports and lodging.
Additional investments will be made in reopening Wisconsin historical sites and supporting state tourism, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
George Rouman, president of The National Association of Theater Owners of Wisconsin & Upper Michigan, which represents about 700 screens in about 100 locations statewide, said he needs to prepare for the potential of increased crowd sizes this summer and has to figure out a way to expand his operating hours that were cut back during his reopening phases. He said it’s also tough to get movies, which aren’t being released by studios at the usual levels.
He said his organization is made up of a lot of small, independent theater operators, which are running on tight margins.
“A little bit of a tough time will severely impact many of these operators,” said Rouman, who owns Rouman Cinema in Rhinelander. “But a prolonged period like this, that we’re going through and trying to come out of, I mean, it’s brutal.”
The funding includes:
- $75 million for lodging grants
- $11.25 million for movie theaters
- $12 million for live event small businesses
- $2.8 million for minor league sports teams
- $10 million for live venues
- $15 million for destination marketing organizations
- $8 million for summer camps
- $1 million for the Wisconsin Historical Society to assist in reopening historical sites
- $7.5 million to increase marketing support for Wisconsin’s tourism industry
The federal money is coming from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and will be administered by the Wisconsin Department of Administration and the Department of Revenue.
“Wisconsin is bouncing back stronger than ever,” Evers said in the press release. “Whether it’s an urban or a rural destination, these investments will help make sure that local venues and businesses come out of this pandemic ready to welcome folks from communities around Wisconsin and across the country.”
In November, Evers announced that 54 movie theaters across Wisconsin, including Marcus Cinemas and Flix Brewhouse in Madison, would split $10 million from the COVID-19 Movie Theater Grant Program.
The awards were part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and were administered by the DOA.
The program provided eligible theaters in Wisconsin average awards of $14,600 per screen. The money was designed to be put toward pandemic-related measures, such as improvements to allow appropriate social distancing, cleaning and sanitizing, and personnel costs to provide COVID-19 safeguards.
‘A huge boost’
Rouman called that first grant program “a huge boost for us,” and said it got many of his members through the holiday period, including himself.
In December, seven Madison entertainment venues were among 96 in the state that benefited from $15 million in federal COVID-19 relief also funded by the CARES Act and administered through the DOA.
The COVID-19 Live Music and Entertainment Venue Grant Program provided grant funding to live entertainment and large meeting venue operators whose facilities had been affected by the pandemic.
The prorated grants provided eligible recipients 25% of 2019 ticket or event sales, up to $500,000.
Layla Moosavi, director of strategic operations for Wisconsin Youth Company, said she’s in the process of applying for the DOA grants for her organization’s summer camp and after-school programs.
She said the grants are essential for the company’s continued operation. “Just, as everyone else was, we were hit hard by COVID-19. We never stopped operating programs.”
When the schools closed in March 2020, Moosavi said her organization wasn’t able to operate its after-school programs for a couple of months, but they picked back up in last June 2020 and haven’t stopped.
They have operated at a much lower staff-to-child ratio and had to apply mitigation strategies, resulting in programs being much more expensive to operate. “It was essential in keeping our family safe,” she said.
The after-school program operated at 25% capacity for a period and then at 50% capacity, and the organization is still working its way back to 100% for its summer camps.
“We’re not quite there yet,” Moosavi said. “We’re probably going to be operating closer to about 60% to 75% capacity until we can really get back to normal times. And that’s also going to mean that kiddos will need to have access to the vaccine and we’ll need to make sure that everybody is protected.”
Christian Overland, director and CEO of the Wisconsin Historical Society, said the society will use the money to help reopen historical sites across the state.
“We’re very grateful for the $1 million relief that’s been given by the administration and we’re very thankful for the administration’s support,” Overland said, “so we can better serve our residents with the amazing historical resources of the Wisconsin Historical Society.”
He said the society will immediately begin to hire and train staff with the goal of all sites being open in August.
Old World Wisconsin (in Eagle), Circus World Museum (in Baraboo), Black Point Estate & Gardens (in Lake Geneva) and the Wisconsin Historical Museum (in Madison) are open. Madeline Island Museum (in La Pointe) is set to reopen on July 22.
The sites that will be reopening include Wade House (in Greenbush), HH Bennett Studio & Museum (in Wisconsin Dells), Reed School (in Neillsville), Pendarvis (in Mineral Point), Stonefield (in Cassville), Villa Louis (in Prairie du Chien) and First Capitol (in Belmont).