Saline County “Stars” Born

Making the most of available resources to counter COVID-19 effects, Saline Stars were born in April through the Choose Saline County app.

The loyalty program aims to spend up to $670,000 of the county’s $10.532 million federal allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act, to help both participating local businesses and the people who patronize them.

Choose Saline County is designed to bolster economic activity in the community.

“It’s like a double whammy of supporting local business,” said Phillip Smith-Hanes, Saline County Administrator.

All that’s needed to start is to get the app on your wireless phone, and start collecting Saline Stars. Go to the App Store or Google Play on your phone or tablet and type in “Choose Saline County” and link to a debit or credit card.

“Every time you spend money with that card at a local business that has signed up, you earn Saline Stars,” he said. “Every star you earn is worth a dollar and you can redeem those dollars at redeeming businesses.”

Businesses can participate in one of two ways, Smith-Hanes said.

“We push for businesses to accept Star redemptions as payment,” he said. “But there are places where you earn but not redeem. It’s a little more involved for the business to redeem. It doesn’t cost the business anything, but they have to reprogram their cash registers and train their employees, and we understand that is a lot to ask from many small businesses in the current environment.”

The app shows the participating businesses — as of Aug. 1 there were 255 involved; 616 people have downloaded the app and 171 of those have linked their cards.

“It’s a really cool and innovative way for the county to use the ARPA dollars to benefit small businesses and residents as well. It puts money in their pockets by incentivizing them to spend locally,” said Renee Duxler, director of economic and workforce development at Salina Area Chamber of Commerce.

To ease the endemic sting early on in the pandemic, the county awarded grants for stimulus funding through the chamber.

“When we got the ARPA funds, we decided ‘Instead of just giving free money to people not doing well, let’s try and encourage economic activity in the community.’ ” Smith-Hanes said. “We were looking around and found this app that a couple of other cities had used.”

Other cities, such as Boston, Massachusetts, and Akron, Ohio, used the app.

“At Akron in particular, this app ended up returning nine dollars for every one dollar the city had invested in it. We thought that was a pretty good return,” he said. “It took about six months from the time we had this bright idea to the time we were able to let people start downloading the app on their phones.”

Choose Saline County was announced publicly at the Chamber Banquet in April, and it launched June 7.

“I got 10 Stars just for signing up,” said Terry Burger, a retired Salina Farm Bureau agent.

“Merchants and the community both need to take advantage of this,” he said.

At first, Choose Saline County adoption was slow, said Tammy Jarvis, owner of Ad Astra Books & Coffee House, 141 N. Santa Fe, but she’s hopeful it will benefit both Salina businesses and consumers.

“It takes time for a program like that to catch on,” she said. “We’ve been pushing ‘shop local’ for a long time. This is a fun way to bring it to people’s attention.”

The app is open to any consumer who shops in Saline County, and any business within the county. It doesn’t cost anything, and you don’t have to be a chamber member, Smith-Hanes said.

“If you are from McPherson, Dickinson, Ottawa or any county, we encourage you to download the app and use it when you shop in Saline County,” he said. “But businesses have to be from Saline County.”

The app could also benefit businesses and individuals who advertise in participating local media, but as of Aug. 8, Duxler said, none had joined in.

“Theoretically, if local media companies were on the app, then businesses could earn stars,” she said. “It would depend on their (the media company’s) invoice system and how they accept payment if they could be.”

There are many ways Choose Saline County can generate local commerce, benefit businesses and people.

“It’s basically any sort of transaction you can do with a credit (or debit) card,” Smith-Hanes said. “Up to 20 percent of what you spend, you earn in Stars. If you pay 20 dollars for a pizza, it’s four Stars.”

Businesses are sorted by type and location on the app, he said.

“It’s a way to make that local money stay local,” Duxler said.

The county’s committed so far to participate in Choose Saline County for a year, but has enough money for three years, Smith-Hanes said.

“Theoretically, if this works, we would get enough sales tax money in the county to continue funding it into the future,” he said.

The list of participants is growing.

“I know quite a few people who earn the stars,” Duxler said. “There are several businesses like Ad Astra. People are redeeming coffee there. Brown’s Shoe Fit (2150 Planet Avenue) is real high on it. At Vernon Jewelers (123 N. Santa Fe), people have been redeeming Stars for rings and other jewelry.”

Note: Direct questions regarding Choose Saline County can be posed to Renee Duxler, director of economic and workforce development at the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce (785) 827-9301, ext. 127.