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 stimulate new business. Photo by Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

WOODSTOCK – Let the best business win.

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

“The idea is that the closer a company is to solving a critical need in society, that’s a big plus,” said Cliff Johnson, one of Startup Woodstock’s organizers and judges.

Johnson and his family moved from Atlanta to Woodstock during the pandemic. More than a decade 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 contest 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 downtown revitalization. The commission awarded $10,000 to the contest, and an additional $20,000 came from private donors.

“We really want people to come here,” Nill said. “We will do everything we can to resolve some of these glaring issues or barriers to opening a business.”

High rents downtown contribute to the barriers, Neal said, along with the perception that Woodstock has a bureaucracy that is difficult for potential business owners to navigate. While the former may be true, he refuted the latter, saying that nearly all business owners surveyed by the commission reported having positive experiences working with municipalities.

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

“It always worries me that we’re just a rich town,” he said, “because we’re made up of a lot of merchants and a lot of people who have lived here all their lives.”

With that in mind, Neal and Johnson said Startup Woodstock hopes to attract potential applicants for the prize money. People whose ideas may be in their infancy are invited to apply. So are service-based businesses, such as electrical, landscaping and childcare businesses.

“A $30,000 grant could help someone start a new childcare business fairly easily,” Johnson said.

The competition criteria states that the company must fill an unfilled gap in the community and hopefully create living wage jobs or a sustainable owner-operated business.

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

Johnson imagines that kind of culture could grow at Woodstock. He moved to Vermont to raise his family, enjoying the Woodstock school system, close-knit community and access to nature. He works remotely and sees Windsor County as a vacation destination that attracts more remote workers like him.

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

This year, the city government created a program that pays landlords to convert short-term rentals into long-term rentals. The program aims to alleviate the city’s housing shortage, which is even more acute as the village attracts tourists. Property owners received $3,000 if they negotiated a one-year lease with a tenant, and $7,000 for a two-year lease.

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

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However, he believes that vacation rentals can be “positive for most communities” if they are licensed, taxed and abide by local regulations.

Although it’s a new idea, Startup Woodstock could grow if it proves successful, organizers say. Applicants have until December 1st to apply, and then the panel of judges to the finalist panel will be announced by December 15th. These finalists will present their ideas in February and a winner will be chosen shortly. after that.

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