- Liv Stromme
Shopping locally is now easier than ever in Lancaster, CA
The City of Lancaster, California has been embracing innovation for years. To support local restaurants and businesses during the pandemic, the economic development team began a shop-local program. In the last year, they have digitalized this program with Bludot.
Tell us a little more about Lancaster, CA! What are your roles and how long have you been working for the city?
I am Sydney Yeseta, the Assistant Manager for Economic Development at the City of Lancaster. I've been in economic development for almost five years. Before switching to economic development, I worked in the planning department for a year.
My name is Michael Flores and I've been in the Economic Development department for a year. Prior to that, I was in the parks department for 12 years.
I'd love to hear a little bit more about Lancaster and what the community of Lancaster is known for:
One of the biggest things that our mayor has really focused on is innovation. We have embraced this by creating our own Community Choice Aggregator, a locally run, not-for-profit power program created by the City of Lancaster. This clean and modern power provider is available exclusively to those who work and live within Lancaster. The city has been proactive in promoting solar power alternatives, conservation, and smart energy consumption. We set out to be the first Net Zero city in the United States and achieved that in 2019, which we are really proud of.
It is also a priority for our Mayor and Council to be as business-friendly as possible. We try to alleviate red tape as much as possible and always try to find a way to say yes. We like to think that we are a little more unique and think outside the box we try to come up with creative deal structures whenever possible. We understand that we get a small percentage of property tax. For instance, we get one percent of the six percent collected, so finding other revenue streams and ways to make money to support our city endeavors is crucial. I think having that business mindset and being willing to take risks is something that we do well.
I know Lancaster has done shop local initiatives in the past. I would love to hear when those started and how the evolution of this program.
We have always encouraged shopping locally, but during the pandemic is when the Voucher Program started. The first round of the campaign was branded "Take Out and Chill," which was a pun on “Netflix and Chill." It was right at the beginning of the pandemic to help the restaurants that shuttered.
Another thing we did when we were trying to find ways to help incentivize our residents to start visiting businesses was to distribute $20 vouchers to redeem at participating local restaurants. Once redeemed by residents, local restaurants would turn them back into City Hall for reimbursement. Alongside that program, we also did a grant program to distribute each restaurant a grant of $500-2,000.
Later, we added some other locally-owned businesses and grocery stores into the program. Throughout the program, it was difficult to get businesses to sign up to participate and train their staff on how the program worked.
For your shop local program, I'd like to know how you funded the local rewards and how you landed on using Bludot.
We did an RFP and were looking to go digital this time to make it easier for both businesses and consumers and get more people involved, so Bludot was our choice. For funding in previous years, we had used ARPA funding and some covid relief funds. Currently, we are using our general fund money. During covid, we passed a sales tax increase to have a little more money to spend on things like this, and reinvesting it in the community was something that our City Council chose to invest in, so they set our budget for us.
I'd love for you to explain how we customized this program to allow users to have $20 to spend in the community just for signing up.
It is essential for our Council to be able to promote the program, so we created business card-sized vouchers for $20 to redeem when signing up for the Open Rewards app. This allows our council members to hand out these $20 reward cards as they meet constituents or while attending City events. It is a great solution to invest in a technology tool with a familiar program model and digitalize it. It's crucial that the investment we're making remains local. So that we’re not just giving out $20 that is spent at Amazon or in a neighboring city, but rather being reinvested back in the community.
How have you been promoting this program?
We’ve been able to give out these cards to people at community events, especially during the holidays. We have a lot of food drives and events such as Toys for Tots, so being able to give back to the community in a tangible way is important to our council. We’ve also been promoting it via our newsletters and flyers. We also have video advertisements at the local DMV and the movie theaters promoting the rewards that our residents can earn simply by shopping locally. By working with our communications team, we’ve been able to make step-by-step usage videos and several different interactive videos that we actively share and promote on social channels.
Do you have any advice for cities looking to start a shop-local program?
The biggest thing is communication to build public trust by having a clear message about how the program works and how this is supporting local businesses. We think the incentive to sign up by getting $20 to spend immediately is a great way to get residents excited.