Big Babe's Tavern at 60 Ocean St. in South Portland reopened for one afternoon and evening of outdoor dining July 3 before owner Ginger Cote decided it was too risky to continue. The building is now for sale for $3.1 million. (Portland Phoenix/Mo Mehlsak)
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Ginger Cote, owner of Big Babe’s Tavern in South Portland, made a difficult decision last week: She closed the music venue and put the brand-new building up for sale. It’s listed for $3.1 million.

“Basically,” Cote said, “I have a hefty loan here, since I built the building from the ground up. … There’s no way to survive unless I can be at full capacity, and there’s no full capacity with COVID for the foreseeable future.”

Notably, the building at 60 Ocean St. is three businesses: a full-menu restaurant, an inn, and a live-music venue. All three need to be humming for the model to work. The hotel bookings are starting to come in. The restaurant has been able to do a bit of takeout. But there’s no way to do live music at anything close to the capacity necessary. 

Cote insisted this isn’t the end of Big Babe’s, though.

Ginger Cote, owner of the now-closed Big Babe’s Tavern in South Portland: “The (pandemic) has totally taken a toll on me and I just feel like I need to sell this monstrosity of a building and try to find a smaller place.” (Portland Phoenix file/Sam Pfeifle)

“The (pandemic) has totally taken a toll on me and I just feel like I need to sell this monstrosity of a building and try to find a smaller place,” she said. “I’ll either build one or find one to rent when there’s a vaccine, but until then …” 

She trailed off. Because, well, no one knows when that’s going to be. And for live music venues, that means deep uncertainty and a whole lot of scared venue owners. 

One Longfellow Square in Portland recently sounded the alarm and was able to use a GoFundMe campaign to raise – at last count – $170,000 to help make sure the venue stays whole through the pandemic. But not every venue has the membership base and longstanding goodwill with the community that One Longfellow enjoys. 

According to the newly formed National Independent Venue Association, 90 percent of independent venues nationwide report that they will close permanently if they remain closed past six months, given the current situation. 

It’s not that Big Babe’s had a bad plan by needing full capacity to stay afloat, said Audrey Fix Schaeffer, communications director at NIVA and a public relations professional who has worked with live venues in the Washington, D.C., area for decades.

“You need to fill a place,” Schaeffer said. “Business plans aren’t based on 25 percent capacity. And that’s the fun way to see a show – shoulder to shoulder in a crowd – and we can’t even envision that right now.” 

The live music that’s surviving – and there’s little of it – is at venues where you can be outside, with people seated in their own family or friend groups, with little intermingling, and solid distance from the performers.

Jason Legassie, the talent buyer at Waterfront Concerts, points to a place like Bernie’s Beach Bar in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, which has so far only had solo acts on its outdoor patio but is gearing up for full bands soon. 

“You’re getting food and drinks,” Legassie said, “(and) you’re relegated to the area at your table. There’s not huge crowds. There have been lines out the door because people have to wait to get in.”

But that’s a unique situation, and that’s not going to be enough to pay for the legitimate touring acts and big names that people are normally willing to pay top-dollar for. These are free shows on a beachside patio. 

None of Waterfront Concerts’ venues in Maine have plans to open for the foreseeable future.

There is, however, a potential lifeline in the works.

NIVA has its hopes pinned on the RESTART Act, a bipartisan proposal (Maine 2nd Congressional District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden is one of two House sponsors) to expand and extend the Payroll Protection Program funds that many businesses have been able to access, but which often don’t fit live music venues where there are few people on salary or where the venues don’t have anything for them to do that could actually generate revenue.

“Other businesses can have people work at home,” Schaeffer said. “(They) can sell online. But there’s no amount of creativity like live streams, or drive-ins, that will keep a live-music business alive. Make no mistake, it’s not a million-dollar problem, it’s a billion-dollar problem.”

According to NIVA and the industry-tracking service Pollstar, music venues will lose as much as $9 billion in ticket sales in 2020. Further, the data says every dollar in ticket sales represents $12 in economic activity in the surrounding area, including restaurants, hotels, even babysitters. Imagine Congress Street in Portland with no State Theatre, no Port City Music Hall, no Blue, no Geno’s. Basically, it looks like our current Friday nights, in perpetuity. 

RESTART would provide partially forgivable, low-interest loans to businesses that can show more than a 25 percent annual drop in revenue, and would allow for up to a year’s worth of loans, depending on how much the revenue declines. Plus, it wouldn’t just target employees, like the PPP. There would be forgiveness for mortgage, rent, and utility payments and interest on debts, and businesses could defer payback on the loan principal for up to four years. 

That, Schaeffer said, might just get businesses to the other side. But NIVA believes RESTART needs to be passed before Congress recesses in August or it will be too late.

“As Congress begins developing an additional package of legislation to address the coronavirus and pull our economy out of recession, I will be working with my colleagues to push for that package to include the RESTART Act,” Golden said. “Nothing in Congress is certain these days, but the bill has support from members of both parties in both the House and Senate, which should help its chances to become law. I encourage any business who feels the RESTART Act would help them to make their voice heard and contact their representatives in Congress to call for their support.”

Cote said Big Babe’s received one round of PPP funds and paid all of its managers before the money ran out. She said ”another round of PPP could keep me going,” if the building doesn’t sell.

Right now, though, the doors are closed and there are no plans to reopen.

“I opened up for outside dining,” Cote said, but one of her cooks was exposed via her husband, “and that was too close to home for me. It’s too risky. It’s too soon to open.”

If the RESTART Act doesn’t pass soon, for many music venues, it might already be too late. 

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at sam@westgraycreative.com.