GRAY — The Gray-New Gloucester Development Corporation hopes to bring customers back into shops, restaurants and markets with a new initiative after state mandates forced many local businesses to close their doors for several months due to the coronavirus.

Safety protocols were put in place at B & R Dairy Bar in Gray when it opened in June. Courtesy of Dawn Murray.

From now until October, if shoppers spend $25 or more in person at any of the 22 participating businesses with their “Shop Local Passport,” they will be entered into a drawing for $500. Normally this time of year, the Development Corporation would have been working on their third “Grow G-NG Challenge,” which is a $10,000 forgivable loan program, said President Tracy Scheckel.

“We really didn’t have enough money to do any kind of small business program that would really make a difference with everybody, so what we did is put this program together and get people shopping at these businesses … (We) want their presence in the businesses, where possible,” Scheckel said.

“There are a lot of unknowns out there and it has definitely affected our businesses,” said Robin Mullins, the Sebago Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce executive director. “What GNGDC is doing is a great idea because I think we need to be thinking outside of the box and get people out to businesses.”

The corporation canvassed about 45 local spots and 22 ended up signing on to the program, including Birchwood Brewing in Gray.

Andrew Sanborn, along with Wesley Hewey and Stacy Strattard, co-owns the microbrewery and taproom.

“We abruptly came to a halt late March and we had to literally close for a full week completely just to try and catch up with how fast the news was changing,” Sanborn said.

When Birchwood reopened for curbside and delivery, Sanborn said “people were really supportive of it, kept us going.”

Before COVID-19 hit, he said, local breweries and taprooms were booming. Now, though, “I’m not sure we’re going to see the same things again,” he said.

“We are positive about our product and so are our customers. I don’t think that any disaster could change that.”

Three weeks ago, Birchwood opened its taproom for outdoor seating, but Sanborn said “it’s been really tough, literally at this point having to focus on the business plan and whether it will work for the future … (the pandemic) will have a long-lasting impact on the taproom industry.”

Sanborn said he and his co-owners are deciding if they will shift their focus away from the taproom and more toward the distribution side of their business.

Another business on the passport, B & R Dairy Bar in Gray, typically opens for the season in early April. But the shutdown delayed that by a month, said Dawn Murray, who started the business with her husband, Tom, in 2018.

“In the beginning it was tough. It was really rough,” Murray said.

But the saving grace was a fundraiser they did last year with Q97.9. Murray said the folks over at the radio station encouraged them to get a website and helped them set one up. For May and June, they took online orders through the website, with their youngest daughter updating flavors regularly. By Father’s Day, they were able to open their window to in-person orders with safety measures in place.

“Now we’re pretty much about where we were last year,” Murray said.

Like Sanborn at Birchwood, Murray said she’s heard customers mention the Shop Local Passport, but since physical copies were only available as of last weekend, she couldn’t speak to its impact yet.

Shoppers can grab a passport at any of the participating businesses or print their own. Find the full list and digital passport at gngdc.com/shop-local-passport.

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