What Happened to the Blacksburg Bucks? Questions Surround Town’s CARES Spending

By Ashley Spinks Dugan

November 20, 2020

Gift certificate voucher program sold out before it launched.

BLACKSBURG- Hundreds of people lined up in the cold Friday morning, waiting outside one of six Blacksburg National Bank branches. They wanted to take part in a voucher program Blacksburg officials announced via a press release on Nov. 19. But at each location, before even one person made it into the bank, they learned the vouchers had sold out. 

The idea was to inject some money into the local economy. The Town of Blacksburg committed $100,000 of its $4.77 million in federal CARES Act money to an economic stimulus program it dubbed “Blacksburg Bucks.” Gift certificates given out through Downtown Blacksburg, Inc., would double in value, redeemable at more than 100 town businesses.

The program’s rules stated you could buy certificates Friday at any of the Blacksburg National Bank locations. People could buy in increments of $20, up to $500 total. So people lined up Friday, ready to buy. But they were all gone at that point. 

Ali Haskins Lisle has several friends who are participating business owners in Blacksburg, so she’d been keeping tabs on the program. 

“I started calling the bank, because they didn’t have a firm date on when they were going to be available. I even called them this week, and they said, ‘We’re going to have them Friday,’” she recounted in a phone call Friday afternoon. “Imagine my surprise rolling up at 9:01 a.m. today, and they’re already all gone.”

Haskins Lisle said she did notice a sentence on the Step Into Blacksburg website, directing folks with questions about the program or interested in large orders of gift certificates to a phone number. But she already knew how the program worked and only planned to spend $200, so she didn’t call.

Town Took Reservations

Blacksburg deputy town manager and program administrator Chris Lawrence said “hundreds of people” dialed the number on Thursday, the day before the program’s official launch. Providing the number was an attempt to manage traffic at the banks, he said. Blacksburg National Bank employees started taking reservations for the gift certificates, although those who reserved did not have to pay for them in advance.

That’s another confusing part. The press release indicated you could only buy certificates with cash or check. For those who called ahead, Lawrence confirmed, “(the) order would be prepared and ready for pick up.  The actual transaction occurred at the bank at the time of pick up.” 

It’s not clear exactly how many people who reserved Blacksburg Bucks were actually able to fulfill those orders Friday. 

Simon Okes didn’t realize people could reserve certificates until he showed up Friday. Okes, who works for the Town of Blacksburg himself, went to one branch in person Friday around 10:30 a.m. He found a paper sign on the door saying the Blacksburg Bucks were sold out, so he called two other branches. He said one bank employee informed him they had been taking reservations for certificates since Wednesday. Multiple other residents said they heard the same thing. 

Okes said his girlfriend lives in Arlington, and he had planned to buy the maximum amount of Blacksburg Bucks to help pay for hotel costs.

“We can’t stay at my apartment (because of) COVID,” he said, noting that he has a roommate. “So we were going to save some money on hotels.”

Who Had Access?

Criticism flooded the Town of Blacksburg’s social media accounts throughout the day Friday. Folks raised concerns that the program wasn’t transparent. Commenters questioned who had access to the “presale” period for the certificates, and how some people had learned of the opportunity to reserve Bucks before others. 

Despite appearance, Lawrence insists there was no impropriety—just mismanagement. 

By publicizing the ability to call in and reserve “bulk orders,” Lawrence acknowledged, “We created a huge problem.”

But as a town employee himself, he insisted that no one in the government, the Blacksburg Partnership or Downtown Blacksburg, Inc. had an opportunity to order certificates before ordinary citizens. And although the term “presale program” floated around social media, he said, “There’s absolutely nothing like that. It doesn’t exist.” 

Dogwood sent a Freedom of Information Act request for any correspondence regarding the sale of certificates prior to the Nov. 20 launch date, as well as a list of anyone invited to an exclusive presale period. In response, Lawrence said, “I’m the program administrator, I’m the one organizing it all. I have absolutely no email, no communication to anybody that would imply or suggest ‘Hey, these are going on sale, you should call early.’” 

Two members of the Blacksburg Town Council have commented on social media that they had no early access to the vouchers. 

‘The Intent Was Good’

Lawrence said that although the execution was poor, the intent of the program was good. Local businesses are struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic, he said, and losing business to huge online retailers.

“Sales taxes are actually at or above normal” right now, Lawrence said, but “that got shifted to a lot of big (box stores) and Amazon.” The question was, how to keep that money in Blacksburg? The town also allocated $750,000 of its CARES money to small business grants, he said, and this latest venture was an attempt to create consumer-driven stimulus. 

Following pushback to the program’s mismanagement, the Town of Blacksburg announced it would fund a second round of $100,000 in matched dollars in early December. Pre-orders, the announcement said, can be made by calling a Blacksburg National Bank branch beginning Dec. 1. 

Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

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