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HARTFORD, VT — A program to encourage customers to shop and eat at Hartford’s stores and restaurants this fall ran out of money only 48 hours after it launched — because it was an overwhelming success.
Hartford Dollars was organized by the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce, nonprofit Vital Communities and town officials to funnel cash to pandemic-affected businesses through the sale of a discounted “currency” that consumers could spend at local stores and restaurants. It exhausted its $9,000 reserve two days after its inception, according to the organizers.
“The response was remarkable. People jumped to help local businesses,” said PJ Skehan, executive director of the chamber, which wrote the application for grant funding from the state and is acting as “fiscal agent” for the program. “We’re looking at how we can do it again.”
Under the program, the organizers enlisted 40 Hartford-area businesses that agreed to accept “Hartford Dollars” coupons that shoppers purchased online in $15 and $25 increments. The coupons are worth twice their value when exchanged at participating business, giving them a purchasing power of $30 to $50 each that can be applied toward merchandise or a meal.
The money to make up the 50 percent difference came from a $10,000 grant from the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which in turn was part of federal stimulus funding provided to the state through the CARES Act to aid pandemic-ravaged businesses.
But by last Sunday, two days after Hartford Dollars launched, demand from buyers had already depleted the $9,000 in the fund ($1,000 of the $10,000 grant was used to cover operating expenses, such as paying for online transaction processing and advertising).
A total of about 200 people purchased the Hartford Dollars coupons, Skehan said, and at one point the organizers had to limit purchases to two per customer because buyers were purchasing hundreds of dollars’ worth of coupons apiece and reducing availability for other buyers to participate in the program.
“They were going pretty fast,” he said.
The list of Hartford businesses that enlisted in the program included Cloverleaf Jewelers, Elixir Restaurant, Fat Hat Clothing, Little Istanbul, Juel Modern Apothecary, Northern Stage, Piecemeal Pies, Revolution, Stern’s Quality Produce, Thyme, Trail Break taps + tacos, Tuckerbox and the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, among others.
Each business was asked to provide Hartford Dollars with social media support by publicizing it and providing links to purchase the coupons on their Facebook and Twitter pages.
Coupon holders have until Nov. 30 to make their purchases, and the coupons may not be used to buy tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, lottery tickets and firearms, nor applied to tips and taxes.
Lori Hirshfield, director of planning and development for Hartford, said the program was intentionally kept small “because we wanted to get our heads around it on a scale that we could manage and do it in a way that we could learn from to replicate it going forward in other communities that might want to participate in the Upper Valley corridor.”
Programs like Hartford Dollars have been introduced in other towns and cities during the pandemic around the state, said Gary Holloway, downtown program coordinator for Vermont’s ACCD. He estimates that there are “15 to 20 different programs” running in such communities as Rutland, St. Albans, Middlebury, Killington, Castleton and Poultney.
“They all try in some way to offer incentives to consumers to make local purchases so the money stays in the community and helps the local community,” he said.
This round of Hartford’s program funnels only $18,000 into the local economy. But for small businesses, that is not play money.
Topher Lyons, owner of Trail Break, said he had $400 worth of coupons redeemed at his restaurant last weekend, both for tableside dining and carryout.
“It was crazy. They launched it Friday and six hours later I saw people coming in” with coupons, Lyons said.
After a person purchases the coupon online, they print out the receipt and the receipt is taken to the business, which the business redeems at the chamber of commerce.
“I even bought $200 worth for myself and my girlfriend,” Lyons said. “We’ll use them at Pizza Chef one night, Juel for smoothies — we picked five or six that we want to support.”
At Stern’s Quality Produce in White River Junction, owner Jill Metivier said customers began coming into the store last Saturday with coupons to purchase food items — and all said they were using the coupons to increase that day’s market purchase.
“The customers came in and were very excited,” Metivier reported. “Even one of my employees bought (coupons) and is going to use them.
Skehan, of the Hartford business chamber, said the organizers are batting around ideas about how they could fund and expand a Hartford Dollars program on a sustained level.
The challenge, he acknowledged, will be where to obtain the funding, especially if there are no further government grants available.
“Maybe (the money) could come from private grants, maybe a gofundme.com campaign, an appeal to Upper Valley residents,” Skehan said. “We’re brainstorming that now.”
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