ONCE Lounge & Ballroom receives $400,000 federal grant

ONCE at Boynton Yards by Vanyaland

With another grant in the books, ONCE Somerville is one step closer to finding a new physical space. The independent lounge and ballroom has received a $400,000 grant through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, which will be instrumental in not only continuing the venue’s current outdoor programming, but also in securing a new location to call home.

“We are lucky, because we lost our space without losing the business, so we hung on, but it is a good thing it came though or we would be finished entirely,” ONCE owner and founder JJ Gonson tells Vanyaland.

ONCE was forced to vacate its original location on Highland Avenue in Somerville last fall, following months without any in-person shows during the COVID-19 pandemic. The venue received a $25,000 grant from the National Independent Venue Association in January, which provided a major first step towards a new chapter for the business. Last week (July 23), Gonson shared the news that ONCE had also received a hefty grant from the SVOG program, which was administered by the Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Assistance.

In addition to continued programming via its Virtual Venue on YouTube, ONCE launched a summer series at Boynton Yards earlier this month, which currently boasts shows through the end of September. These events have been a success thus far — Nice, a fest sold out this past Saturday — but Boynton Yards’ parking lot isn’t a permanent solution, and outdoor events come with unique expenses. 

Yet thanks to this grant from the Small Business Administration, Gonson remains committed to keeping arts and culture flowing from ONCE, both this summer and for many years to come. 

“I feel really, really, really happy and excited,” Gonson explains. “This is a make or break situation. We had no revenue for almost a year and a half and what we are bringing in now is very much earmarked to make the series of events possible (even as we are very supported by Boynton Yards, who are providing the infrastructure—porta-potties, the site, fencing, the containers and support with the rental of the sound and stage. Thank you to them.) The insurance and staffing on these one-day pop-up festivals is a lot and this means we have some security.” 

She adds: “More importantly, it gives us money to start with in a new place. Knowing what it took to fix up and get the last place off the ground, it will not be enough, but we will work and make it happen and this money is going to be a big chunk of what we need. Did I mention job security for the admin and operations staff? That is huge. We have all been doing a dance of volunteering/ unemployment, PPP [paycheck protection program] and payroll for months and the stress of not knowing if we have jobs takes a toll. Being able to plan and work with confidence is going to make us all more productive.”

According to a document from the Small Business Administration, 244 Massachusetts venues, live performing arts organizations, museums, movie theaters, and theatrical producers have received more than $194,000,000 in emergency funding as of July 19.

“Do you know of any other city that is dominated by major venue chains like the Boston area is? I do not, and I have asked,” Gonson concludes. “Property costs here have really made it impossible to function. I hope that we can find a way to change that. Independent venues cannot survive without supplemental arts funding. We have all just proved what every independent venue owner knows too well: that this is an unstable industry and we need to reconsider how the performing arts are funded. Not just the non profits, but the venues, too. I am hoping that NIVA will continue to tackle the problems that make it hard for venues to exist, because without them, we are just one big LiveNation.”