Venues that offer live entertainment have faced numerous challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. Gathering people in a large room and then having some of those people projecting their voices or playing instruments is considered especially risky. Capacity limits make it difficult for these venues to reopen even when they can.

The Old Town Playhouse in Traverse City, Michigan, faces these challenges, but the facility’s managers decided to turn this into an opportunity by upgrading its HVAC system. This was done in part out of need to ensure a safe reopening and in part to address to some old issues.

The community theater consists of three levels. The top two levels had a complete HVAC system, but the first floor operated with a collection of space heaters and window air conditioners. The lower level consist of the lobby, a dance studio, and a smaller auditorium for youth plays.

The work was long overdue. Since there were no shows, this was an ideal time to do the work.

“We thought it was a great time to make a giant mess and install a new HVAC system,” said Gary Bolton, resource production manager for The Old Town Playhouse.

The challenge was getting the money for the project. Deb Jackson, executive director for The Old Town Playhouse, said the group lacked the money in its operating budget to take on a new HVAC system. But then it received a grant from a local family foundation to seed the project, along with contributions from two local companies.

“Both projects have been our radar screen for patron comfort and energy efficiency,” Jackson said. “Then with the pandemic, we realized that overall better circulation was a primary motivator as well for the health of our volunteers and patrons.”

With the funds to complete the HVAC upgrades, a volunteer group started looking at the options. One of them, a retired scientist, concluded an air purifier system from Global Plasma Solutions was the best choice.

With the equipment selected, the construction began. This was another issue.

“This is a 110-year-old building,” Bolton said. “The foundation is basically 2 feet thick, and it’s sealed rock. It was not an easy task to drill through that and run new ducts. But it’s going to be well worth it.”

The theater will host outdoor events during the summers and hopes to resume productions in the fall. Jackson looks forward to seeing the HVAC investment in action.

“When we can reopen, the Playhouse will be a healthier and safer building with clean air circulation,” she said.

Other venues in Michigan that want to upgrade their HVAC systems could find it easier to fund those projects. The state is handing out $3.4 million in grants to entertainment venues under the Stages Survival Program. The grants are up to $40,000, and the money can be used to cover a variety of expenses, including investments needed for reopening.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp. received nearly 400 requests and will fund 101 of these. To qualify, businesses had to meet several requirements, including revenue thresholds based on ticket sales and fewer than 30 employees.

Other states have similar programs. There is also a national program from the U.S. Small Business Administration called the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. This includes local theaters, along with museums, zoos, and other entities.

Eligible applicants may qualify for SVO Grants equal to 45% of their gross earned revenue, with the maximum amount available for a single grant award of $10 million. The grants can be used to cover a number of expenses. These include maintenance costs. Grant recipients cannot have received a Payment Protection Program loan.