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The Happy Dog's Sean Watterson Lobbying To 'Save Our Stages'

The Happy Dog stage has remained empty since March. [Tony Cross]

Along Detroit Avenue, on Cleveland's near west side, sits one of the city's busiest music venues.

Normally, the Happy Dog books more events in its small Gordon Square Arts District bar than there are days of the year.

But according to owner Sean Watterson, not only will the Happy Dog remain closed for now, it could close forever if federal aid isn't approved soon.

Happy Dog owner Sean Watterson outside his music club at the corner of West 58 Street and Detroit Avenue. [Sean Watterson]

"We exist to bring people together. So for us to actually be open just doesn't make sense financially, because we lose money slower being closed than being open," Watterson said.

Watterson is the Ohio precinct captain for a relatively new organization, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which advocates for music clubs like the Happy Dog, Nighttown and the Beachland Ballroom.

"We have been working nonstop lobbying Congress and the Senate for assistance for the clubs that are closed because we're all in that same position of being the first to close and the last to open," he said.

At the top of NIVA's to-do list is lobbying for the recently proposed Save Our Stages Act, a bi-partisan bill under consideration for a vote by the U.S. Senate.

"The Save Our Stages Act would be a grant program for independent live music venues. It would be narrowly tailored," Watterson said. "It would provide us with forty-five percent of our 2019 revenues as a grant."

This is in contrast to the Restart Act currently before Congress, which would provide loans to small businesses, including music venues.

The Happy Dog bar awaits its next customers as the music club remains closed. [Tony Cross]

"For us, whether it's the Restart Act or the Save Our Stages Act it's really plan A or plan B. Either one of those are what we need to be able to come back and serve the community, get people back to work and get back to who we are," Watterson said.

Regardless, Watterson believes music clubs like the Happy Dog are on the edge of possibly never reopening if federal aid doesn't materialize.

"It's hard to say that," he said. "You want to remain optimistic. The people who run clubs are scrappy people. They figure out ways to survive. But NIVA did a survey of all of its members and word was that without either Restart or Save Our Stages, within 6 months, close to ninety percent of the independent venues could go out of business."

Both the Save Our Stages and Restart Acts are currently up for voting consideration, before Congress goes on recess next month. 

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.