The almost $40,000 raised by the Princeton Community Auction will be allocated equally among 25 eligible local businesses in need.

When the Siegel family of Hamilton Jewelers noticed small businesses in downtown Princeton shuttering only a week or so after the imposed shelter-in-place order took effect, they decided action was needed. Hamilton Jewelers is a local business itself, having been a part of Mercer County for over 100 years and four generations, so they decided to put together an auction to support the local business community. The auction ran April 20 to May 20.

Hamilton Jewelers vice president Donna Bouchard helped organize the Princeton Community Auction, which raised nearly $40,000 for local businesses.

“We got together as an executive group and said, ‘What can we do to make sure that when this thing finally ends that all of our neighbors are with us?’” vice president of Hamilton Jewelers Donna Bouchard said.

Starting out by collaborating with the Princeton Merchants Association, the Regional Chamber of Commerce and the mayor’s office, Bouchard pieced together the auction and online portal—something she had never done before.

Anyone from restaurateurs to photographers and individuals to local merchants were welcomed to contribute what they could. Experience vouchers for a pub crawl that went for $620, a tamale making party that went for $300 and other creative excursions were available to almost 600 registered bidders. All together the auction helped raise nearly $40,000 for Princeton small business.

The community took up the cause with enthusiasm and creativity.

“Everybody just kind of came forward and it was like the spirit of the town just was overwhelming,” Bouchard said.

Along with the option to donate funds to the cause, participants were given a generous list of biddable options in the online Princeton Community Auction.

About two weeks into the auction, it started to get traction through social media and word of mouth.

“We started with maybe 25 items or so and now we have about 125 items,” said Bouchard, a Princeton resident. “And it’s everything from really cool experiences and things that people wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”

The offerings included a private Princeton pub crawl hosted by the Princeton Tour Company’s Mimi Omiecinski and an opportunity to create an ice cream flavor at The Bent Spoon, which reached a bid of $750.

These events, along with items such as pieces and a behind-the-scenes tour from Hamilton Jewelers, a private tour of the Princeton University Art Museum with museum director James Steward and local pieces of artwork made for an exciting experience online.

Lifelong Mercer County resident Laura Desai contributed more than one item to the auction. Desai is the head of school at Ying Hua International School of Princeton, a certified yoga teacher and former human resources professional. She decided to offer up all her talents to benefit local business.

From her personal offerings of restorative yoga sessions and a resume review and workshop, Desai also found it important that the school get involved in the auction.

“As a school, we have been very involved in helping the community throughout this crisis in a variety of different ways,” Desai said.

From donating and making masks for healthcare workers and supporting local restaurants, such as Nomad Pizza, by giving them business, Ying Hua has been working to help those in need during this health crisis even before getting involved with the auction. For the auction, the school offered a one-week summer camp program for 2021.

The auction not only provided a platform for community members to contribute towards local business relief but also created a way for local businesses to help each other.

Local business owner and Princeton resident Dariusz Kobajlo decided to donate his talents towards the auction, as he knows what the situation is like for small businesses in the area.

“We’re struggling too but…I want to give back to people in Princeton,” Kobajlo said. Through his business Photography by Dariusz Kobajlo, he decided to share his work and passion in an effort to support the local businesses he has seen suffering. Kobajlo gave an engagement photo session for bidders, valued at $525.

“It’s very hard for any business owner to make some profit and be able to support their employees and everybody else…I see what’s going on in Princeton,” Kobajlo said. “I hope every small business will come back to town. I try to be optimistic, but I feel their pain.”

His faith remains in the close community of Princeton, where Kobajlo said everyone knows each other and will chip in to support those who really need it.

Bouchard has seen the same.

“It was really surprising to me to see people who literally have nothing right now themselves and said, ‘I can’t contribute financially but I can give of my time or my expertise,’” Bouchard said.

Now, Bouchard has started work distributing funds to the businesses that applied for aid.

Originally 33 small businesses applied for funds through the auction. Before bidding closed, Bouchard reached out to make sure those that had applied were still in need. Eight businesses dropped out, as they had received alternate funding and wanted to allow others in greater need access to the money raised.

Bouchard said most of the businesses are looking to put the money they receive towards payroll and rent. Used as a stopgap, the money will give businesses time to figure out further funding and how to survive this health crisis.

To receive funds from the auction, small businesses—defined as having 100 or less employees or $5 million or less in annual revenue—were required to present valid tax identification and be physically located within a 10-mile radius of the greater Princeton area.

The auction sought local support for these small businesses and their employees, who are struggling amid the COVID-19 crisis. A second, shorter auction is in consideration, Bouchard said, although official plans have not been formed yet.