BEMIDJI -- Several community organizations pulled together and announced a new initiative Friday to help residents and businesses make it through the coronavirus pandemic.

As part of the Bemidji Alliance, the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce leadership brought forward a gift card campaign idea, where the public will be able to get gift cards that can then be used specifically at local businesses. The Alliance, made up of the Chamber, as well as Greater Bemidji Economic Development, Visit Bemidji and the Downtown Bemidji Alliance, announced the new program in partnership with the United Way of Bemidji Area.

"We've seen this work in other small communities and we're modeling after what other chambers have done," said the Chamber's Executive Director Abby Randall. "We've already had some business support and buy-in with this. We hosted a downtown retail business roundtable discussion, and the idea started circulating from that. Molly Miller of Patterson's Clothing brought up a model that worked in Iowa and my hometown of Ortonville also had a program."

The program, titled Bemidji Area Gifts of Hope, will have two parts. One will be purchasable $40 gift cards for local businesses, where a resident will pay $20 and the rest will be covered by the program's fund. The other piece of the program will be gift cards for local restaurants that will go directly to the United Way, which will then distribute them.

"We're looking to raise a lot of money," said Greater Bemidji Executive Director Dave Hengel. "We were given a generous donation by Steve and Jill Hill of Hill's Heating and Plumbing of up to $50,000 to our community. We'll take the donations in at Greater Bemidji in separate account."

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According to Randall, the program is still in logistical development, but she said the program received the necessary jump-start thanks to the Hill's donation and that it will be more formulated next week.

"I think the main point we're at is we're looking for buy-in for sponsors willing to match," Randall said.

"Our backpack program went from 450 students that receive them every Friday to 1,200," said United Way Executive Director Denae Alamano. "So, we're more than doubling the amount of kids in need right now. We're having constant conversations about families that are absolutely struggling right now."

For more information, call the Chamber at (218) 444-3541 or Greater Bemidji at (218) 444-5757.

Chamber delays awards, focuses on aid

Because of the social distancing aspects that come with the current pandemic, Randall said the Chamber's annual awards event, usually scheduled for the month of May, has been pushed back to September during the organization's yearly Celebration Gala. The awards regularly include Business of the Year, New Business of the Year, Community Impact Award, Entrepreneur of the Year and a special lifetime achievement award.

With the awards ceremony delayed, Randall said all efforts are on assisting the business community.

"We have a big job right now to decide what we're going to do as a community to help stimulate our local economy, because we know tourism as a whole is going to be deeply affected," Randall said. "Right now, the Chamber's biggest push is to listen and reach out to every single one of our members and discuss how operations are going. We've found there's a lot of questions, and a lot of opportunities to learn from each other."