There are lots of reasons people enthuse about the city of Gulfport near St. Petersburg — the waterfront, the sense of community, the unique vibe.
Here’s one more residents are talking about lately: Households have been getting $50 in vouchers this holiday season to spend at local businesses — or on something as basic as paying a utility bill — as the pandemic stretches on. Gulfport Rebound, the program is called.
“I just recently moved to Gulfport and this is the type of initiative that makes me very happy that I did!” resident Cindy Stovall told me recently via email.
The city opted to use about $400,000 in American Rescue Plan Act money to get it moving through the local economy. Households that experienced a negative economic impact from the pandemic or spent at least $50 on coronavirus-related supplies were eligible for two $25 vouchers redeemable at 68 local businesses that applied to be part of the program.
And those businesses are varied: restaurants, shops and hair salons, but also a locksmith, tax services, computer repair and pest control, to name a few. Approximately 7,500 households have gotten vouchers, which expire Jan. 10.
The mayor wanted to do something that would help both residents and businesses, said city manager James O’Reilly.
Some locals had particular praise for allowing vouchers to also be used to pay utility bills or other city services such as child care at the recreation center.
Case in point: Kelli Montgomery, proprietor of 5 Buck Truck, used vouchers to pay the electric bill for a food truck business that uses a lot of it — “kind of like a freebie this month for electrical services.”
Around town, the perk with a purpose is getting used.
“It’s bringing a lot of the business back that we lost during COVID,” said Lauren Culbertson, manager of BoTiki boutique, where they’re getting three or four vouchers a day. Zaiya Artizen Market, a boutique and artist gallery, took in more than $500 in Rebound vouchers the first week, said owner Jill Rice via email.
“Throughout the pandemic the residents of Gulfport have regularly supported merchants and restaurants — we are doing a great job of keeping a lot of our dollars in Gulfport,” she said.
Ester Venouziou, who runs the St. Petersburg business organization LocalShops1, used her vouchers to take a friend to Stella’s for breakfast.
“I think Gulfport’s Rebound program is great, rewarding residents while pumping money into local businesses, who then recirculate that money locally, too,” she said.
Sean Wilson said he could have gotten lunch or beers at the usual watering holes, but opted for local Christmas gifts for out-of-town family and friends — “spreading the Gulfport love far and wide.”
“I’ve never lived in a community that did this for its citizens,” said resident Paula Allen, an artist and art teacher.
“They could have put it somewhere else,” said Montgomery, the food truck proprietor. But “it gives people fifty bucks in their pocket.”