Ryan Expresses Support for Replenishing Funds for Venues, Restaurants

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – When the pandemic first hit in March of 2022, Westside Bowl owner Nate Offerdahl had a panic attack.

His rock venue-bowling alley, which opened less than two years earlier, was facing an extended shutdown with little to no revenue.

Through a minor miracle, he managed to stay afloat for months solely on takeout pizza sales.

First one band paid for the next 10 pizzas sold. As word of the generosity spread, hundreds of other customers did the same, paying for an amazing 6,000 pizzas in advance for future customers.

It was one of the most heartwarming stories to emerge from the pandemic, and the cash infusion kept the lights on at the beloved rock club.

“It was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had,” Offerdahl said.

The pay-it-forward pizza purchases proved to be the indispensable bridge to federal pandemic funding that kept Westside Bowl going as the pandemic dragged on.

The Mahoning Avenue business eventually received $230,000 from the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, $80,000 in Payroll Protection Program money, and a very-low interest economic disaster of $150,000 loan that updated the massive building’s boiler.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, helped secure funding for the SVOG program as part of the American Rescue Plan’s support for small businesses.

Ryan visited Westside Bowl Thursday to discuss SVOG and other federal pandemic-relief programs with Offerdahl, and express the need to reinstitute them.

“These places are pillars of the community,” he said. “They are more than just businesses. We want to make sure they weather the storm.”

Ryan said he has written to President Biden, expressing the need replenish funding to help restaurants and entertainment venues, which still face a downturn in business and rising labor and food costs.

“It’s a great investment, not a handout,” he said. “We’re going to try to get it in the next bill that leaves the station.”

The SVOG program doled out $16 billion to venues nationwide. “I was thrilled to see how much money came back to Ohio and made its way to Westside Bowl,” Ryan said.

The Restaurant Revitalization Fund gave grants totaling $28.6 billion to 105,000 restaurants before running out of money.

“There are maybe another 150,000 that didn’t get money and we need to replenish that,” Ryan said.

He criticized the slowness of the program to process claims and get checks in the hands of struggling restaurateurs and venue operators.

“The overall lesson was how broken the government is,” Ryan said. “It needs to be modernized.”

The goal of PPP was to keep workers on the payroll so that when business did ramp up again, employment levels would stay the same, Ryan said.

Westside Bowl has 30 employees and retained all of them during the pandemic.

“The PPP is what paid our employees at first,” he said. “I’m not sure we’d be here without it.”

Offerdahl gave his staff a raise twice during the pandemic, saying good workers are hard to find.

“Our turnover was nonexistent,” he said. A ray of light from the pandemic, he noted, is that service workers are finally being paid what they deserve.

Offerdahl said business at Westside Bowl is still anywhere from 20% to 50% below pre-pandemic levels. With the Omicron variant surging, he expects no improvement through the end of 2022. “The Shuttered Venues money will be our lifeline for the next year,” Offerdahl said. “With a little luck, it should last us through 2022.

Pictured at top: Westside Bowl owner Nate Offerdahl and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.