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City of Austin Wants to Designate Official Iconic Restaurants and Venues

It’s part of the city council’s efforts to help support restaurants and live music venues struggling because of the novel coronavirus pandemic

The facade of a blue and white restaurant building with a yellow to-go sign
Dave Creaney/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Nadia Chaudhury is the editor of Eater Austin covering food and pop culture, as well as a photographer, writer, and frequent panel moderator and podcast guest.

There are three avenues for COVID-19 relief for Austin restaurants, bars, and music venues impacted by the pandemic, through the city of Austin’s $15 million Save Austin’s Vital Economic Sectors (SAVES) funds.

This is as restaurants and music venues (as well as other businesses) have been struggling to stay open while attempting to pay their bills with diminished or lack of business. Recently, Texas independent concert promoter Margin Walker announced it was folding, warning of a potential future where the state’s and city’s thriving concert scene might not exist in the same way.

The SAVES fund will be split into three $5 million buckets. The first is the Iconic Venue Fund, which would designate and give much-needed financial aid and business assistance to the city’s defining venues and restaurants as a way to continue to make the city a tourism and business destination during and beyond the pandemic. The second is the Live Music Venue Preservation Fund, dedicated to performance venues impacted by the pandemic. There is also the possibility of using Chapter 380 (which typically allows the city to create deals that help stimulate economic development) through incentive programming.

To Austin City Councilmember Ann Kitchen, who led the Iconic Venue Fund resolution, these three paths allow the city to respond in timely ways. She sees the general SAVES fund as a medium of giving out immediate help, the Chapter 380 agreement as a way to aid and usher businesses into and through 2021, and the Iconic Venue Fund as a “longer term” solution, she says. “The idea behind it is to create a sustainable ongoing fund into the future.”

A white building with red sign that reads “Sam’s Bar-B-Que” in white letters next to a mural painting of Martin Luther King Jr.
Sam’s Bar-B-Que
Sam’s Bar-B-Que/Facebook

Iconic Venue Fund

This resolution, issued December 3, aims to protect Austin’s iconic venues, restaurants, and bars amid the pandemic and the city’s general development boom.

Tourism in Austin is obviously down, since people aren’t traveling to frequent vacation destinations. This travel slowdown led to immediate major losses in revenue for restaurants, which, coupled with the city’s trend of rising commercial rents, make it that much harder to stay operational. “The loss of those contributing essential talents and businesses would have negative impacts to the City’s ability to quickly recover and thrive upon recovery,” reads the resolution.

This fund will be fueled by hotel occupancy taxes, which the city has previously used to preserve historical sites. By designating potential recipients as “preserved historic sites and/or visitor information centers” because of how they promote and represent the city, Austin can use these tax dollars legally to support these businesses.

“That helps sustain our venues, including restaurants, that have been with us in Austin for a long time,” explains Kitchen. “It’s more of a preservation piece that we really want to preserve these parts of our culture going into the future.

“We’re an amazing city,” Kitchen continues. “We have amazing places here, and, as we grow, we don’t want to lose them. We’ve already lost too many. So we want to stop the loss.”

This resolution, led by Kitchen, was co-sponsored by Councilmembers Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, and Alison Alter. These funds will be managed by the Austin Economic Development Corporation (AEDC), with the contract starting January 27, 2021, at the very latest.

In order to be considered, the venues must show that they’ve been impacted by the pandemic, prove that they bring in tourists, and demonstrate an interest in deals with the city, such as leaseback payments dedicated to refilling the fund so that the city can help other similar businesses in the future. It’s meant to work as a sustainable fund, Kitchen explains. There is also an emphasis on making sure that the diversity of the venues are under consideration, according to both geography and the communities that they serve.

A set of red doors on a black building
The Continental Club

The resolution includes a list of iconic locations already under consideration, but it notes that the funds aren’t being limited to just this list, compiled from the Visit Austin website (music venues, restaurants). These include:

Chicken shit bingo at Little Longhorn Saloon
Chicken shit bingo at Little Longhorn Saloon
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Austin City Council took responsibility for not saving venues that have already closed but would’ve been eligible for these funds. This includes including Threadgill’s (which had been on the resolution’s list), Shady Grove, Barracuda, One-2-One Bar, Scratchouse, and numerous others (“Austin hasn’t successfully provided a means to save these aspects of Austin’s character and culture,” the resolution reads).

The resolution also runs through different potential avenues of aid, such as leaseback arrangements, lower rent payments that take current revenues into consideration, and extra support for destinations that develop visitor ambassador programs that disperse information about the city to tourists.

Live Music Venue Preservation Fund

Then there’s the Austin Live Music Venue Preservation (ALMVP) Fund, which was approved on December 3. Only live music venues found in Austin City Council districts that have been greatly impacted by the pandemic (that have experienced “significantly reduced operations since March 2020,” as the release explains) and have followed all COVID-19 mitigation measures are eligible for the funds. Applications for the ALMVP fund are currently being accepted (as of December 11), and the deadline is Monday, January 11, at 5 p.m.

The ALMVP fund will be disbursed in two phases. First, there’s the emergency funding stage, when live music venues that are in danger of closing permanently could get $20,000 grants, this month. These recipients will also be given access to services that will aid the businesses in the long run, including advice from real estate companies regarding lease negotiations and accounting and legal services.

The Mohawk
The Mohawk

The second stage is what is being called enhanced funding, through which potential beneficiaries can apply for additional grants of up to $140,000 (in addition to funds from the emergency funding stage). These applicants would have to go through an evaluation process and submit a strategic equity plan outlining how the businesses will address potential instances of systemic racism and offer diverse programming through employment training and development programming as part of their applications. Once accepted and approved, these recipients will be given the funds in monthly installments that max out at $40,000.

The ALMVP fund is being coordinated with Austin venue the Long Center for Performing Arts, which will manage applications and the money, with help of the City of Austin Economic Development Department.

Chapter 380 Agreements

Under this interpretation of the tax incentive program, the city would be able to offer property tax reimbursements to commercial property owners that allow small-business tenants to negotiate their leases in their favor. There’s also a restaurant-specific component, the restaurant relief program, which would lend forgivable loans to Austin restaurants (the description specifically excludes franchises).

While Kitchen sees the Chapter 380 programs as ways to help Austin small businesses in the long term, there are no funding sources as of yet.