Cobb Energy Center receives $5 million federal relief grant

Jul. 30—CUMBERLAND — Closed for nearly 18 months due to the pandemic, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center has received a $5 million federal grant, providing a financial boost to one of Cobb's largest entertainment venues.

The news was announced Wednesday at a meeting of the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority, the governing body which manages CEPAC, the Cobb Galleria, the Galleria Specialty Shops, and the Artsbridge Foundation.

The grant comes courtesy of the Small Business Administration's shuttered venue operators grant, a $16.2 billion program created during the second COVID-19 stimulus package, passed by Congress in December. The program provides direct financial relief to live performance venues, movie theaters, and museums whose business was hurt by the pandemic.

As with other sources of pandemic-related federal aid, the grant comes with strings attached. According to the SBA, allowable uses include refunding customers holding tickets for cancelled performances, debt service, renovations to improve health and safety, or recouping lost employee wages. CEPAC will have one year to spend the funds.

Other uses are outright prohibited. CEPAC could not, for instance, "use their grant funds to send bottles of champagne to their clients or provide martinis at a reception," per an SBA fact sheet.

Rob Turner, finance manager for the authority, said CEPAC would likely have to contract an audit of how it uses the funds. Authority Chairman Jerry Nix was unperturbed by that inevitability, calling it "a high-class problem to have."

The news comes as CEPAC finds itself still in the red ahead of its planned reopening in September. Thus far in its 2021 fiscal year, the authority has had to transfer $1.2 million from its cash reserves to cover expenses for the empty venue. The authority's revenues on the whole have taken a sharp dip not only from the cancellation of shows and conventions, but from the drop-off in Cobb's hotel/motel and liquor by the drink taxes, of which the authority receives a cut.

Management is hoping those trends begin to turn around with CEPAC's hosting of the BET Awards in September, and its first ticketed events in October starting with the comedians Bert Kreischer and Bill Burr.

CEPAC isn't the only authority entity getting a boost from the federal government. The ArtsBridge Foundation received a paycheck protection program loan of nearly $57,000 to cover payroll expenses for its employees. The foundation recently received notice its loan will be forgiven, a courtesy granted to employers who keep their workers employed after receiving the loan.

Thus far, those were the only federal relief programs the authority has been able to take advantage of, Turner added. Going forward, he hoped to see the authority pursue further assistance from the State of Georgia and Cobb County, he said.

Cobb Chair Lisa Cupid sits as a member of the authority's board, and said after the meeting aid for the Galleria and CEPAC was conceivable, but stopped well short of any guarantees.

"We're open," Cupid said of the idea, noting the county is still working to hire a consultant to help distribute the tens of millions in American Rescue Plan Act funds the county has in the bank.

"Right now, there are a lot of possibilities," she added.