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SMALL BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT: The Center for the Arts of Homer: Resilience in a Pandemic

By Paul Brooks

Date:

An outdoor performance at Dwyer Memorial Park “drive-in”, featuring Richard Thompson. (PHOTO CREDIT: CENTER FOR THE ARTS)

HOMER, N.Y. — What do you do when the COVID-19 pandemic literally shuts down your whole operation?

You get creative and pivot to an operation where you are staying relevant and fulfilling your mission. This is the situation faced by the Center for the Arts of Homer — and the approach it took to deal with that trying business period.

The Center for the Arts of Homer, a nonprofit organization located at 72 S. Main St. in historic Homer, is one of Central New York’s preeminent presenters of the arts. Located in what had been the First Baptist Church of Homer, until it outgrew it after 200 years, the Center for the Arts came into being when a small group of neighbors came together in the facility in 2001. 

The Center for the Arts, with its 400-seat “Whiting Theater” and 325-seat Karen Sager Community Room, presents a diverse series of main-stage programs and performances by artists of global, national, and regional repute. The Center also features film screenings, a community-theater program (Center Players), and showcases artwork by regional, national, and international visual artists in its art gallery. Additionally, the 34,000-square-foot Center hosts a variety of classes, workshops, and programs throughout the year.

In March 2020, all events came to a screeching halt with the Covid-19 shutdown.

The Center for the Arts of Homer has the mission of serving the community and providing arts and cultural events that enhance the lives of the audience it serves, according to Ty Marshal, executive director. The pandemic challenged that mission severely, so Ty and his small staff decided to meet it head-on.

Determined to keep the Center active, the staff of seven continued to work on a reduced, often-remote basis, organizing programming to adapt to the times. This was, of course, a significant challenge without live audiences or steady ticket revenue. They hung art in the windows of businesses on the main streets of Homer and Cortland for pedestrians to enjoy and to hold onto their awareness of the Center. The staff organized a 24-hour live telethon online around the holidays, collaborating with 12 other Cortland County not-for-profits to raise funds, resulting in $24,000 of badly needed revenue that was divided among the groups. The Center for the Arts also staged the state’s first “concert in a car” at the county’s Dwyer Park and held a series of parking-lot concerts headlined with local and regional talent. The Center created several other community-serving programs and projects. Resilience was evident in everything they tackled during these tough times.

But where would the revenue come from to continue even this very low level of activity?

Joe Cortese, the Center for the Arts’ development officer, contacted the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Onondaga Community College to learn more about the federal CARES Act (which implemented a variety of financial programs to address issues related to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic). Most prominent, and critical, for the Center initially were the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) Program and the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

I assisted Cortese to become familiar with the programs and to complete the necessary applications. “Until those PPP loans became available, which have now been forgiven, we were dependent on our small reserves, but the PPP allowed us to keep our staff of seven people on the payroll and fully employed, and that was a profound impact,” Marshal, the organization’s leader, said.

The Center for the Arts of Homer, located in the former First Baptist Church of Homer. (PHOTO CREDIT: CENTER FOR THE ARTS)

Making up for lost revenue for an organization like the Center for the Arts in Homer has been a major task, of course, with over 35 percent of annual revenue coming from concert ticket sales. But major donors and sponsors, along with the community at large, came through in a very generous way. And so did the SBA.

With the passage by Congress of the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits, and Venues Act in December 2020, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program was created. The SVOG created $15 billion in grants to shuttered venues, administered by the SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance.

Once again, the Center for the Arts turned to its SBDC advisor to navigate the somewhat-complex application process. The result was a game-changer grant award, which substantially made up for the Center’s lost revenue during its shut-down period. This grant has allowed the Center for the Arts to continue its youth-art classes this summer and to program a full schedule of performances and presentations for the 2021-2022 season. It kept the lights on, and then some.

Executive Director Marshal, reflecting on the past year, said, “We are extraordinarily grateful to all that have helped us through this period including the generous community, our loyal staff, and the federal grant opportunities that allowed us to continue. We will be presenting a full schedule of performances this year, emphasizing the CDC and local COVID-19 guidelines to serve our community in the best way possible.”

Visit the Center’s website at: www.center4art.org. Visit its Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/Center4TheArts.

Business Advisor’s Tip: Communicate: As a startup, nothing is more important than effective communication. Make sure you are promptly responding to customer contacts and effectively utilizing communication channels with mentors and advisors. Effective communication is the essence of sound management.                        

Paul Brooks is a certified senior business advisor at the Onondaga SBDC’s Tech Garden satellite office in downtown Syracuse. Contact him at p.c.brooks@sunyocc.edu

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