Vermonters hoping for a free $30 coupon redeemable at local businesses mobbed a state website Tuesday morning, leading to delays.
The #BuyLocalVermont website went live at 11 a.m., and more than 10,000 people sought access to the coupons in the first hour, said Lindsay Kurrle, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
At Gov. Phil Scott’s press conference on Tuesday, Kurrle said “the system is working” but the verification codes needed to access the coupons were “still a little delayed” due to the high level of interest.
“We’re just asking for folks’ patience, and hopefully those codes will be coming your way very shortly,” Kurrle said.
The electronic coupons are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and there is enough money in the program for 14,166 Vermonters to receive them.
The idea is to help businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to have people redeem their coupons and spend even more than $30, said Nate Formalarie, director of communications for the Vermont Department of Tourism.
The program is funded with $425,000 in federal CARES Act dollars. It is considered a pilot that could pave the way for a similar $50 million program under consideration by the legislature.
Selected businesses get the cash immediately. If 100 people sign up to receive coupons for Birchgrove Baking in Montpelier, for example, its owners will immediately receive $3,000. Then coupon holders have until the end of October to cash them in on coffee, chocolate chip cookies and other items on the menu.
In order to be fair to all the participating businesses, the coupons will be distributed based on the number of businesses and applicants in the zip code who have expressed an interest in a certain category. Some 1,300 businesses in the state, from restaurants and coffee shops to ski resorts and massage parlors, are participating in the program.
Burlington residents looking for some free grub might be offered a choice between coupons for Taco Gordo in the Old North End or Willow's Bagels downtown. Similarly, a DIYer from Barre might get a choice between a coupon for Nelson Ace Hardware or Auto Parts of Barre.
Limiting people’s options to two businesses in their immediate geographic area is a way to ensure all businesses have a crack at benefitting from the funds.
“The reason we can’t just let people pick whatever business they want is because we want to make sure it’s equitable across the program,” Formalarie said.
It was not immediately clear how the program will strike that balance. The website is operated by Boston-based Nift Networks. The company claims to use proprietary algorithms that use multiple data points "so there won’t be a situation where 20% of the businesses get 80% of the funds.”
Businesses must be non-franchises based in Vermont that have suffered losses from COVID-19.
The funds cannot be used for the purchase of weapons, firearms, alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, lottery tickets, fireworks or adult items. There is a limit of one coupon per household.