Basalt hopes to spur business with $20 vouchers for residents |

Basalt hopes to spur business with $20 vouchers for residents

Tim Keeffe sits in a booth during lunchtime at the Two Rivers Cafe in Basalt on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. Basalt officials plan to launch a program in June to spur sales at restaurants and retail shops.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Basalt town government will take a modest first step at economic stimulus and consider a more ambitious program later this summer.

The Town Council on Tuesday night voted 7-0 to approve a modified Basalt Bucks program, revived from the Great Recession in 2009. That will entail mailing a $20 voucher to each household in town and urging residents to spend it at participating restaurants and retail shops in Basalt. The vouchers won’t be good at grocery stores.

Council members kicked around numerous modifications but ultimately decided to get something going fast to encourage spending.

“Unless anybody strongly objects to what’s being presented — I know I don’t — I say we roll with it,” Councilman Glenn Drummond said.

Mayor Bill Kane suggested two weeks ago to revive Basalt Bucks as an economic stimulus. He was town manager during the Great Recession and oversaw an initiative that awarded shoppers with a $30 voucher if they produced receipts showing they had spent at least $300 in Basalt establishments. The vouchers could be spent at participating establishments and proprietors could redeem them for cash.

Kane said he liked that approach because it leverages public money to encourage spending.

“You’re essentially buying loyalty from the customers that buy the bucks,” he said.

But what worked during a recession in 2009 won’t necessarily work during a pandemic in 2020, when social distancing and avoiding contact is advised.

“That’s a downside of my original notion,” Kane acknowledged.

In 2009, shoppers had to come into Town Hall and present their receipts to get their Basalt Bucks. Shop owners and town staff also interacted. The program also invited people from outside the midvalley to visit Basalt, Kane noted.

“It relied on a lot of out-of-town spending,” Kane said. “We didn’t have COVID in those days.”

Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said the staff favors a more “homegrown” approach where the vouchers are mailed directly to residents. That could encourage more widespread spending by a more diverse cross-section of town residents, he said. Plus, it reduces exposure for residents and town staff.

“When we were thinking this through, we thought bringing people into Town Hall might not be the best idea,” Mahoney said.

The $20 can be used for purchases inside a store or restaurant but can also be used for take-out food or products for people still leery of entering businesses, he said. Also, mailing the vouchers rather than asking people to produce receipts removes a layer of requirements.

“We would reach out to all businesses and get them to sign off,” Mahoney said.

Councilman Bill Infante said the program didn’t provide enough of a stimulus. He said $20 buys a drink or two at local restaurants. He suggested immediately offering a voucher for $100 or $120 at a discounted price.

“The restaurants are bleeding and hemorrhaging now. They need cash now,” Infante said. “I would argue for greater impact sooner.”

Mahoney countered that offering people $20 will spur additional spending. The program isn’t perfect, he conceded, but it is a good start.

Kane said time is of the essence. He urged the council to approve the staff’s proposal and be prepared for a possible expansion of the program later in the summer.

Mahoney said after the meeting that vouchers would be mailed to about 2,400 addresses in the Basalt area by mid-June. Additional vouchers will be reserved for handing out at a scaled-back public events series that will start June 17.

The cost of the stimulus program will be about $43,000, assuming about a 75% use rate, he said. The expenditure includes printing and mailing. Basalt has a significantly smaller budget than other towns in the valley.

Kane said larger vouchers could be considered next summer, if not sooner.

“The economic downturn unfortunately isn’t going to be short-lived,” he said.

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