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Houlton stimulus event to aid small businesses sells out in its first hour

HOULTON, Maine — People in hundreds of cars had lined up along Bangor Street in Houlton to pull into J. McLaughlin Construction, stretching as far back as a mile, in hopes of obtaining a gift certificate.

But in the end, only around a dozen cars ended up being served, as the $50,000 raised by the chamber was completely spent from callers and drivers. The event ended up lasting less than one hour.

The line was for a stimulus program to support local businesses in Houlton, where people could pay for a gift certificate for a local business of their choice, the amount of which was then matched by the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce, effectively giving buyers double the amount on the certificate for which they paid.

It was the brainchild of Joshua McLaughlin, owner of J. McLaughlin Construction, as well as Community Development Director Nancy Ketch, Jane Torres of the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce, and Jon McLaughlin from the Southern Aroostook Development Corp.

“It’s absolute mayhem,” said Janice Good, who was helping volunteer at the event during that first hour. “We’re trying to take two calls and two cars at the same time, but the timing isn’t matching up.”

Those who showed up in their cars and managed to be served were greeted by a volunteer with a mask, who wrote down their request for the certificate then brought it inside to be counted and processed, in order to ensure safety and social distancing.

Four phone lines were also used to take orders from those calling in from home.

“We had an overwhelming response,” said Joshua McLaughlin, owner of J. McLaughlin Construction and one of the main organizers of the stimulus project. “Our original goal was to raise $5,000, so I was quite humbled when we got $50,000. But with the cars and phone lines, in a little over 50 minutes the money was completely gone.”

But McLaughlin didn’t rule out the possibility of having a second such event.

“We’d like to keep that option open. We’ve had some businesses that say they would be on board,” he said. “I think it’s something that we should look at.”

The idea for certificates was based on a similar stimulus event held in Madawaska. The funds came from a stimulus account created by donations from individuals and businesses.Payments were accepted with cash, credit/debit cards and by check. Gift certificates were available for any local business, including those that have closed due to COVID-19. The gift certificates for closed businesses could be held until the business re-opens. If any business does not end up re-opening, the customer would be refunded.

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