County chambers seek new ways to create income amid virus cancellations
AROOSTOOK COUNTY, Maine — Traditionally, summers are a time for a multitude of town events to entertain and delight members of the community.
It is a time for parades and festivals, food and craft fairs, dunk tanks and street dances all done to help celebrate each respective region.
Many of those events serve as fundraisers for local Chambers of Commerce who use the funds raised to help promote tourism or relocation dreams for people who either no longer live here and yearn to come home, or those who are tired of the hustle and bustle of big city life and want a more simple life.
But this is no ordinary summer in Aroostook County.
Much like small businesses in the area, local Chambers of Commerce are also struggling to make ends meet since they have not been able to host home improvement expos, potato festivals or Fourth of July activities this year.
In an average year, the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce in Presque Isle would be planning or have already held many of its 11 annual events and monthly “Eggs and Issues” breakfast series talks.
But this year, particularly the summer months, marks significant changes for chamber events. Due to concern over potential COVID-19 spread, the chamber opted to cancel its most popular events — the Crown of Maine Balloon Festival, held during the last weekend in August, and the Aroostook Brew and Wine Fest, held every October.
Both events bring in thousands of dollars to the local economy, said executive director LaNiece Sirois, and numerous tourists from other areas of Maine and the country.
“People come from all over and stay at hotels, go shopping and eat at restaurants,” Sirois said. “This year those businesses won’t have that type of revenue.”
Although the chamber is a nonprofit that does not typically generate huge revenues, she noted, board members use the estimated $200,000 in revenue every year — $20,000 of which comes from the City of Presque Isle — to support increased membership opportunities for local businesses and create new events that advocate for businesses and highlight issues related to local economies.
“We use that revenue to be the voice of the business community on their behalf,” Sirois said.
The Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce receives a stipend of $24,000 from the town to assist with the executive director’s salary and to cover up front costs for events.
“As a chamber of one staff member, we have been extraordinarily lucky in that we are supported by the town of Houlton,” explained Jane Torres, executive director. “Not all chambers in The County are supported by their towns as well as we are. We are very grateful for that.”
Houlton’s stipend helps cover such expenses as sending out information packets to businesses or individuals who may be interested in relocating to Houlton and also provides the revenue needed to organize events such as Midnight Madness, the Blackfly Brewfest, Potato Feast Days and Southern Aroostook Trade Show.
Losing the bulk of its revenue this year has forced the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce to rethink how to best serve the community, which includes keeping them safe. Other canceled events include a new administrative professionals conference originally to be held in April and the summer dates for Eggs and Issues.
The Central Aroostook chamber postponed its strawberry shortcake sale and its Smokin BBQ Cook-Off until Aug. 6 and Aug. 15, respectively, with the necessary social distancing requirements to limit public attendees to 50 people. In the coming week, they will announce details regarding small events that will replace the traditional balloon festival.
Chamber board members will decide by the end of this month whether they will hold the annual Haunted Woods Walk, an October event that takes visitors on a creepy walk through the woods around the Nordic Heritage Center. They do not yet know what the future holds for the Holiday Light Parade and Holiday Craft Fair, both held on the first Saturday in December.
If the pandemic situation remains prevalent in 2021, Sirois imagines that the Chamber will have to “think outside the box” about how to hold small events for the community that still allow them to be profitable.
“We’ll have to be very cautious with our yearly budget and keep all the issues in mind,” Sirois said. “It might mean holding a lot of smaller events throughout the year.”
Even in these times, Sirois remains optimistic that the Chamber will continue to sustain itself and refocus on how it can best serve the community.
“I don’t think this is a gloom and doom situation,” Sirois said. “We’re still going to offer some events and work together with the community towards a common goal, which is everyone’s overall health.”
“I am proud of the fact that our doors have not been closed once due to COVID-19,” Torres added. “Those that do come in, we are sure to use social distancing or wear masks.”
The St. John Valley Chamber of Commerce based in Madawaska, worked with the town in the early stages of the pandemic on the Boost Program.
The stimulus concept allowed for the St. John Valley Chamber of Commerce to sell $50 gift certificates at $25 each. The other $25 was paid for by the program using Urban Development Action Grant funds.
The goal was to get the money into the hands of the small businesses each week.
When the program went into effect April 20, it had 28 businesses opt in, and gift certificates were sold out within two hours.
“What I found most heartening in all of this is that the boost program, which was to help our small businesses, really did do that,” St. John Valley Chamber Director Sharon Boucher. said “Our larger business entities stepped up and helped to ensure their smaller counterparts survive this experience.”
Boucher added that the St. John Valley Chamber of Commerce sends emails with COVID-19 news, updates and tips.
The chamber had to cancel the annual dinner, but said it will honor the 2019 award recipients at a presentation that Boucher said will “take place shortly.”
The winner for business of the year was The Bakery on Main in Madawaska. The Outstanding Community Service Award went to Theresa Theriault.
“[Theresa] has volunteered tirelessly for the Acadian Festival and other organizations,” Boucher said. “Both winners will be honored at next year’s dinner with our 2020 recipients.”
While Boucher said the businesses in town are doing “fairly well,” the chamber itself has had to “tighten the belt” with limited resources and hours due to COVID-19.
“We are working on collaborative efforts with our municipalities and business entities,” Boucher said. “We have scheduled most of our events for next year and all in all, we’re hanging in there and doing what we can to help our membership.”
The Greater Fort Kent Area Chamber of Commerce is managing to maintain, for now, through the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to executive director Dona Saucier.
“Although our income is not as it has been in the past, we are holding our own for the time being,” Saucier said. “Unfortunately, because of how the chambers of commerce are designated in the non-profit sector, we are unable to take advantage of the federal help offered to small businesses through the CARES Act, so the funding we rely on is the same as always – our membership dues, appropriations, sponsorships and fundraising.”
In March, the Fort Kent chamber made the decision to postpone its annual sponsorship campaign for events out of respect for the financial stress members are facing, according to Saucier.
“Our sponsors are what pay for our events, so as we plan our events this year, this is an important part of the planning discussion, along with public health and safety concerns,” Saucier said.
“We will probably, like in most places, fall short of our budget for this year, however, we were in good financial shape prior to this year’s budget, and we are keeping a close watch on our expenditures, so we will, hopefully, come out of this okay,” Saucier added.
Saucier said that on the positive side, the Fort Kent Chamber is taking the opportunity of limited viewer traffic to the organization’s website as of late to focus on rebuilding the site.
“Although still under construction, it is coming along nicely and we anticipate its completion within the next month or so,” she said.
Staff writers Melissa Lizotte, Joseph Cyr, Morgan Mitchell and Jessica Potlia contributed to this article.