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By Emily Manz Principal, EMI StrategyJune 17, 2020In early April, a story swept the nation of an anonymous donor from Earlham, Iowa who bought gift cards for every resident of town to three local restaurants. It made waves in the press, as people across the nation looked for good news in this challenging time. When I read it, I loved it – for helping residents through a financial crisis and for supporting the local, small businesses. But did you know that New Jersey business improvement districts and corporations were making purchases to support local restaurants and retailers right here at home?In Fort Lee, the downtown district purchased gift cards in April and gave them to their first responders. Knowing that events and several seasonal promotions would be impossible due to the virus, Stuart Koperweis, Executive Director of the Fort Lee Business Alliance stated, “we went into a new mode.”  The organization provided gift cards to first responders on the front line of the pandemic, spending $16,000 in gift cards from about 25 restaurants. The businesses, and first responders, Koperweis shared, were incredibly appreciative.Building off the success of this program, the Fort Lee Business District Alliance then launched a program where individuals could buy gift cards from local businesses at a 40% discount, with the Business Alliance picking up the tab for the discount. The program, appropriately named the Fort Lee 40% Off Gift Card Program involved 29 District businesses. $32,000 in gift cards were sold in total, with $12,920 reimbursed by the Alliance. Approximately 900 gift cards were sold – which means in the future, people will be flowing into town to use their cards. These people will be learning more about Fort Lee businesses and spending more locally when they do so. A win, win.In Newark, not only were business districts involved in recovery efforts focused on direct purchases, but also a major corporation! In April, Audible, in collaboration with José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen and Marcus Samuelsson, launched Newark Working Kitchens, aka NWK. NWK is a free, daily meal delivery service for Newark frontline healthcare workers and residents in need. Their goal was simple: keep their hometown community fed—and their fellow Newark business owners and their employees working. NWK has delivered 182,000 meals in eleven weeks, working with nineteen Newark restaurants.Though this initiative is unique, it is interesting to note that Audible is not new to supporting restaurants through direct purchases. The company also runs a program called Lunch Out Wednesdays that provides $15 for employees to eat at local restaurants. In fact, in early March, Audible’s Don Katz and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka met up for lunch to celebrate this program and the milestone that Audible employees had eaten 30,000 lunches out in Newark downtown businesses since 2017.MainStreet Vineland connected with donors early in the pandemic to help them support business owners through direct purchase. They reached out to Century Savings Bank in their district and with their donation and a partnership with NJ Heartland, purchased $1,000 worth of gift cards to support local restaurants. 600 people registered to win one of forty $25 gift cards to a favorite downtown restaurant. Individuals were asked to choose their top three restaurant choices upon registering. There was then a drawing for the winners.Robert Scarpa, Associate Director of Mainstreet Vineland, called the gift cards “a win, win, win.”  He said, “It was a win for the restaurants in their district who needed money in their registers; a win for the bank because they received great press from their support for the district and businesses; and a win for us at MainStreet Vineland because we got 600 people to know more about their dining destination and contact information to keep inviting them to learn more about Downtown Vineland businesses and events in the future.”Building off the success of this first initiative, Main Street Vineland is now supporting retail venues with a similar model. Another local bank, Members 1st of NJ Federal Credit Union, has stepped up to match up to $1,000 of any donation Main Street Vineland receives. Money raised from this campaign is being used by professionals in the medical field to buy food, products, and services at businesses along “The Ave” in MainStreet Vineland. As Scarpa shared, they can buy a wide range of goods like uniforms at Cheryl’s and work shoes at Al’s. This campaign is ongoing, and getting a great response from the first responders, credit union, and Main Street Vineland.Emily Manz is President of EMI Strategy and Co-Founder of Have You Met Newark Tours. She is a member of the Downtown NJ Board and on the Executive Board of the Northeast Economic Development Association. For more information visit or email Emily at

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