State throws financial life preserver to Malheur County groups as Covid epidemic endures

With no one to book conferences or plays, chairs are stacked up in a hallway of the Four Rivers Cultural Center last week. The facility suffered a drop in use in the wake of the Covid epidemic but state funding will help keep the doors of the building open. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz).

ONTARIO – A financial life preserver in the form of a state grant will help three Malheur County groups weather the crippling impacts on their operations of the pandemic.

Four Rivers Cultural Center and the Malheur County Fair in Ontario and the Drexel H. Foundation in Vale all received emergency grants from a special state allocation intended to keep Oregon nonprofit groups alive.

“It saved 600 arts foundations from closure,” said Matt Stringer, executive director of Four Rivers.

Malheur County remains under state restrictions that forbid large events and meetings. That means everything from theater productions to annual fundraising dinners have been stripped from calendars since early this year. As a result, nonprofits have seen their incomes drop, forcing a cut in services and in some instances staffing.

The cultural center, with its meeting rooms, performance theater and museum, closed on March 16 and re-opened on July 20. But state restrictions prohibit indoor gatherings of more than 10 people.

In its application to the Oregon Cultural Trust, which awarded the grants, Stringer said the cultural center so far this year has lost $400,000 in revenue and was on track to lose $700,00 in 2020.

He said sold-out shows had to be canceled, room rentals are down and the cultural center’s share of hotel taxes is down because people aren’t traveling as much.

“We have had a total of five very small meetings (less than $500 income) here since reopening,” Stringer wrote. “We have not generated ticket sales income since our last theater performance in February, which was a sell-out show.”

In an interview, Stringer made clear the poor fortunes of the cultural center.

“We aren’t doing anything,” he said. “Every single revenue stream has dried up.”

The cultural center received $132,197 from the Oregon Cultural Trust. Without that, Stringer said, the center would close.

The money will cover wages and utilities and allow for a few improvements, such as converting the Ontario center’s lighting system to be more energy efficient and repaving the parking lot.

“It’s just incredible to have this grant awarded to the cultural center and make sure the building is maintained for the meantime until we get back to normal,” said Tanya Navarette, cultural center marketing director.

At the Malheur County Fair, the cancelation of the annual county fair and other events so far has meant a loss in revenue of $159,000.

“When 2020 began, we anticipated 100 events for the year,” wrote Lynelle Christiani in her application for the grant. “To date we have hosted two events due to the limitations put in place because of COVID-19.”

She wrote that the Malheur County Fair Board has done what it could to cut costs.

“They made hard decisions as soon as COVID-19 hit us,” she wrote in an email to the Enterprise. “We cut every expense we thought we could get by without. I am acting as caretaker and manager. We stopped irrigating a large part of the facility. No new projects and only emergency maintenance.”

“Our mission is to survive 2020 and be a viable entity in 2021,” Christiani wrote in the grant.

In her email to the Enterprise, she elaborated.

“The Malheur County Fair cannot go through another year (fiscal or calendar) without having events,” she wrote. “In January the board may have to make additional difficult decisions on how to go forward with our business.”

She said she had to cancel events for October, losing another $13,000 in anticipated revenue. She is going ahead with the annual holiday bazaar even though there will likely be fewer booths, social distancing will be required and there is likely to be no Santa.

The fair is run from income off events and its share of state lottery receipts. It gets no county tax support.

The Oregon Cultural Trust awarded the fair $46,403.

In Vale, the Drexel H. Foundation told the state it faced increased costs for its summer art camp as its pool of volunteers shrank.

In its application, the foundation said its art camp for kids, which usually serves 40 youth per day, instead served 190 with take-home kits instead of in-person events.

The foundation said that it normally relies on local donations to pay for art supplies and prizes but contributions have been “very meager due to the financial impact of Covid on our community.” Increased staff wages were necessary “as our huge volunteer structure was dismantled,” the application said.

The foundation said its wage expenses so far hit $5,192 with only half its programming completed. Wages for the entire year in 2019 were $4,776, the application said.

The Cultural Trust awarded the foundation $5,108.

The foundation still lists among events its Halloween movie program at the Rex Theater for Oct. 31.

Sandijean Fuson, foundation president, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.


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