Walking through downtown Hamilton, you’ll find “We’re Open” signs on nearly every storefront.
It’s no coincidence that the downtown district is up and running with heavy foot traffic. Back in March, members of the Hamilton Downtown Association anticipated the need for extra help as their shops navigated the pandemic.
“When the stay-at-home orders were first implemented, we knew our local businesses were coming out of very slim months,” said Executive Director of the Downtown Association Claire Kemp. “And we knew that this was going to be potentially catastrophic for a lot of them.”
The Hamilton Downtown Association wasted no time as the COVID clock ticked and within days, the group had a GoFundMe page up and operating with a goal set at $20,000 for emergency relief funds.
“As applications rolled in, the committee would discuss it, and then we would just send checks out. So we've gifted over $50,000 at this point,” said Kemp.
The donations came from community members across the city. According to Kemp, some people even donated their stimulus checks as soon as they received them. Not only was this emergency relief fund the first of its kind in Montana, but the Association delivered these checks without restrictions or directions on how the funds were to be used.
Director Claire Kemp said they were deemed "emergency funds" for a reason.
“We didn't want to get bogged down in details, as we often see. Then we're not really helping people, sometimes.”
The funds paid employees, paid bills, and offered a pick-me-up for those struggling the most.
“These businesses employ our neighbors, our friends, our family members,” said Kemp, “They're absolutely a vital part of the entire fabric of this community, and our day-to-day lives and our needs. I don’t know where I'd go to buy a book if Chapter One Bookstore wasn't there anymore.”
Lucky for Kemp, Chapter One Bookstore received some of that funding, allowing them to pay their part-time employees through their five-week shutdown. Now, they’re open and they’re ready for business.
“We get people who walk downtown every day to get their coffee and get their newspaper,” said shop co-owner Mara Lynn Luther. “There are certain customers that if they walk in at 11:30 instead of 10:30, we're like, “You are late today!”
Chapter One Bookstore always has the latest and the best sellers, but they’re more so known for offering that small-town, personalized customer service.
“We, as the owners, have a really unique reading taste, and we strive to bring something different and to not just be what you would find at the airport. Our goal is to have something really unique here, something that's our flavor,” said Luther.
The shutdowns jeopardized the future of Chapter One, but when they received their relief funds from the Downtown Association, they knew they had the support from the community to carry them through the pandemic.
“I heard from a lot of customers and community members here in town. They couldn't support their local businesses because everyone was closed, but they could give to the downtown fund and know that the money was going to go towards supporting their businesses," Luther said. "And that that would make it more likely that we'd all be able to open back up."
The fund reached well beyond the initial goal of $20,000 and even has additional funds that are waiting to be distributed. If you’re a business owner in Hamilton looking for support, you should contact the Hamilton Downtown Association directly at (406) 360-9124.