Woodstock competition offers $30,000 prize for best business idea

Cliff Johnson, left, and Larry Niles, two of the organizers of Startup Woodstock, hope to spur new business. Photo by Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

WOODSTOCK — Let the best business win.

With $30,000 in seed money, three Woodstock business leaders helped create Startup Woodstock, a pitch competition that will help launch a new business.

“The idea is, the closer the company is to solving a critical need within the community, this is a great advantage,” said Cliff Johnson, one of the organizers and judges of Startup Woodstock.

Johnson moved with his family from Atlanta to Woodstock during the pandemic. Over ten years ago, while working in Portland, Oregon, he founded Vacasa, an international vacation rental management company, which he left in 2018.

Johnson is organizing the Woodstock competition with Jon Spector and Larry Niles, both members of the city’s Economic Development Commission, which focuses on issues such as housing, child care and urban revitalization. city ​​center. The commission provided $10,000 for the competition, and the additional $20,000 came from private donors.

“We really want people to come here,” Niles said. “We will do everything we can to solve some of these very obvious problems, or obstacles, to opening a business.”

High rents downtown contribute to the obstacles, Niles said, along with the perception that Woodstock has a difficult bureaucracy to navigate for prospective business owners. While the former may be true, he denied the latter, saying that almost all business owners surveyed by the commission reported that they had positive experiences with the local government.

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Niles also rejects the idea that Woodstock only caters to a certain clientele.

“I always get tired of thinking that we’re just a rich city,” he said, “because we’re made up of a lot of businessmen and a lot of people who have lived here all their lives.”

With that in mind, Niles and Johnson said Startup Woodstock hopes to cast a wide net in recruiting potential applicants for the prize money. People whose ideas may be just in their infancy are welcome to apply. So are service-based businesses such as electrical, landscaping and childcare companies.

“A $30,000 grant can help someone launch a new child care business pretty easily,” Johnson said.

The competition criteria requires the business to fill an unmet void in the community and hopefully create living wage jobs or a sustainable owner-run business.

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If successful, Johnson said he hopes the competition will create “a culture of entrepreneurship and (allow) people to create their own destiny.”

Johnson imagines that kind of culture could grow in Woodstock. He moved to Vermont to raise his family, enjoying Woodstock’s school system, close-knit community and access to the outdoors. He works remotely, and sees the Windsor County vacation destination as a draw for more remote workers like himself.

For a town of only about 3,000 people, Woodstock devotes substantial resources to economic development. Since 2016, the city’s Economic Development Commission has awarded more than $1 million in grants that support events, physical infrastructure, marketing and other initiatives.

This year, the city government created a program that pays landlords to convert short-term rentals to long-term rentals. The program aims to alleviate the lack of housing in the city, which has become more acute due to the attraction of the village for tourists. Property owners received $3,000 if they agreed to a one-year lease with a tenant, and $7,000 for a two-year lease.

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Johnson acknowledged the “concern that comes when a community gets more vacation rentals coming in,” including through Vacasa, adding that short-term rentals can be “a minor contributing factor to housing affordability.”

Still, he believes vacation rentals can be “a positive part of most communities” when they are licensed, taxed and follow local regulations.

Although it’s a new idea, Startup Woodstock could grow if it’s successful, according to organizers. Applicants can apply until December 1st, at which point a to-be-announced panel of judges will narrow the field to a group of finalists by December 15th. Those finalists will present their ideas in February, and a winner will be chosen soon. since then.

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