WASHINGTON — When it comes to securing federal coronavirus relief aid, Hawaii-based concert promoter Jonny Mack is in good company.
Mack is a principal behind Dream Weekend, a large music festival that in 2019 brought big-name artists, such as Usher, Ice Cube and Marshmello, to the islands to play at Aloha Stadium.
He’s also one of the top beneficiaries of a federal grant program for the nation’s music halls, museums and theater companies that were forced to cancel shows and still the turnstiles during the pandemic.
Newly released data shows Mack and his companies, Dream Weekend LLP, Angel Magik Group LLC and Culture Guru Inc., received more than $11.3 million through the program, as much or more than Carnegie Hall, the Broadway megahit “Hamilton” and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Congress allocated more than $16 billion to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators grant program, which stems from the Save Our Stages Act, bipartisan, bicameral legislation that sought to target federal dollars to arts and culture.
After the coronavirus decimated the industry, Mack joined a national movement that lobbied for the legislation.
Only 129 organizations in the U.S. so far have met the qualifications to earn a $10 million grant from the SBA, the maximum allowable for a single entity under the program.
In Hawaii, there were two — Mack’s Dream Weekend and the Polynesian Cultural Center, one of the state’s premier tourism attractions that pulls in upward of $50 million a year in revenue.
Hamilton, of course, is in a category of its own, since its Broadway show and four traveling productions each received $10 million grants, for a total of $50 million.
Mack deflected most questions about how exactly he secured his grants funding through the SBA, and instead preferred to talk about the industry as a whole.
“I’m excited for the opportunity to inject federal funds back into Hawaii,” Mack said. “This should not be about me. It should be about the grant program and helping the people of Hawaii.”
Mack’s companies Angel Magik Group and Culture Guru, which he said he uses to promote other events, such as the New Year’s Eve Party of the Year, received grants of $1 million and $333,000, respectively.
Federal spending data compiled by the Project on Government Oversight to track coronavirus stimulus spending shows Mack’s companies also have been approved for nearly $400,000 in loans and other aid through the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program. Those programs also are run by the SBA and are meant to help small businesses during the pandemic.
In addition to live music venues, the Shuttered Venue Operators grant program is open to zoos, museums and aquariums as well as independent cinemas and theatrical productions.
According to the latest data from the SBA, more than 15,000 applications have been submitted by organizations seeking $12 billion in grant funding as of Monday. So far, the SBA has awarded $7.6 billion in grants, most of which have gone to live venues, and performing arts operators and their promoters.
Sixty-eight Hawaii entities have received nearly $102 million through the program, ranking the state first in the U.S. on dollars per capita received. The SBA data shows the average grant award in the islands is about $1.4 million, which is twice the national average and more than any other state or territory, including the District of Columbia.
Some of the top recipients in the state include the islands’ most popular luaus, including at Paradise Cove in Ko Olina and the Feast at Lele in Lahaina.
Others that received millions of dollars from the SBA include tour operator Robert’s Hawaii, the company behind the Blue Note in Waikiki, and Tihati Productions, an entertainment company that boasts online of employing more than 1,000 people, including “musicians, singers, dancers, and choreographers from every Polynesian island group.”
The Neal S. Blaisdell Center, which is operated by the City and County of Honolulu, also received $3 million.
Mark Tarone, who is the producer of the Hallowbaloo Halloween street festival in Chinatown, described the shuttered venue program as “your one shot to keep your business alive.”
Tarone was recently awarded a grant worth nearly $500,000 through Hawaii Halloween, a company in which Mack is a partner. He hopes the funds will help make up for his losses of the past year as well as allow him to put on Hallowbaloo, which he estimates could cost between $200,000 and $300,000.
His concern, however, is the ongoing pandemic and increasing case numbers caused by the delta variant, which is ripping through the country. Tarone said he worries that if vaccination rates don’t increase and more people begin getting sick he’ll find himself in the same situation next year.
“The variant scares the hell out of me,” Tarone said. “For me the grant is going to make up for last year, but I got beat up this year too. Whether I’m suffering this year and next depends on whether we can produce events.”
Dream Weekend appears to have benefitted from a quirk in the system.
Under the SBA rules, any eligible entity, whether a museum, concert hall or aquarium, that was in operation on Jan. 1, 2019 could receive a grant worth up to 45% of its total earned revenue for the year, with the maximum grant amount capped at $10 million.
That would mean that in order to hit the $10 million ceiling, an organization would have to report more than $22 million in revenue in a single year.
The formula changes for organizations formed after Jan. 1, 2019. In those cases, a grant award would be equal to six times the average monthly income for the months an outfit was in business. To reach the $10 million maximum, a company would need to report average monthly revenues of almost $1.7 million.
The Dream Weekend concert started in 2018, but records show Mack didn’t register the official Dream Weekend LLP with the state until the following year. Among Mack’s partners in the venture is Michael Galmiche, a local promoter who once made headlines after he allegedly was assaulted outside of a Honolulu nightclub by accused organized crime boss Michael Miske.
Mack declined to share his grant application or talk specifically about his earnings, but he acknowledged that he used the six-times multiplier that the SBA said was for businesses that began operations after Jan. 1, 2019 and that he based his revenues on his final show at Aloha Stadium in December of that year.
Had he used the 45% formula — which he said he did for his two other companies — it’s unclear whether he would have come anywhere near the more than $22 million in gross revenues needed to receive the maximum grant award.
For comparison, when Hawaii-born Bruno Mars put on three sold-out shows at Aloha Stadium in 2018, data from the trade magazine Pollstar shows, concert goers bought nearly 113,000 tickets that resulted in more than $12.4 million in gross revenues.
Miryam Barajas, a spokesperson for the SBA, said in an email that the agency does not comment on individual grants and instead provided a link to the program’s Frequently Asked Questions page.
The shuttered venue program has been dogged by problems almost since its inception.
The SBA took several months to launch its portal for struggling business owners and other organizations. Once it did, technical glitches made it all but unusable, causing another round of frustrations and delays.
Audrey Fix Schaefer, who represents the National Independent Venue Association, said the SBA has been doing a better job of getting money out the door but is still running behind on hundreds if not thousands of applications
“Make no mistake, I’m sure that this is probably one of the most complicated programs they’ve had to roll out,” she said. “It’s not like other programs. This is a grant program and they’re dealing with a host of different industries that are not identical or under the same umbrella.”
Mack, like others in his industry, said he has struggled to adapt to strict social distancing requirements and limited capacities aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. He said the virus has made it hard to plan for the future and left him with practically no income for almost two years.
Dream Weekend does not have full-time employees, he said, but instead relies on renting out Aloha Stadium and hiring subcontractors to provide security, lighting and stage management.
The influx of cash from the SBA will put these people back to work, he said. His goal is to eventually build Dream Weekend into a destination event that draws tens of thousands of people to the islands, similar to the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in California.
“I don’t consider this money my money,” Mack said. “It’s for me to 100% reinvest back into the economy and to reestablish the business.”
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