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

Cliff Johnson (left) and Larry Niles, organizers of the start-up Woodstock, hope to spur new business.Photo by Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

Woodstock – Let the best businesses win.

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

“The idea is that the closer a company is to addressing some of the key needs within the community, that’s a big advantage,” said Cliff Johnson, Startup Woodstock’s organizer and one of the judges.

Johnson moved to Woodstock with his family from Atlanta during the pandemic. While working in Portland, Oregon, more than a decade ago, he founded Vacasa, an international vacation rental management company, and left in 2018.

Johnson is organizing the Woodstock race with Jon Spector and Larry Niles, members of the town’s Economic Development Council, which focuses on issues such as housing, child care and downtown revitalization. The committee provided $10,000 for the competition, with an additional $20,000 from private donors.

“We really want people to come here,” Niles said. “We’re going to do what we can to address some of the very obvious issues or roadblocks to doing business.”

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Niles said high rents in the city centre created barriers, while Woodstock was perceived to have an unruly bureaucracy for potential business owners. While the former may be true, he dismissed the latter, saying nearly all business owners surveyed by the commission reported positive experiences with local authorities.

Niles also rejected the idea that Woodstock caters only to specific clients.

“I always cringe at the thought that we’re just a wealthy town,” he said, “because we’re made up of a lot of businessmen and a lot of people who’ve lived here all their lives.”

With that in mind, Niles and Johnson say the startup Woodstock wants to cast a wide net in recruiting potential bonus applicants. Those whose ideas may still be in their infancy are invited to apply. The same goes for service-oriented businesses such as electricity, landscaping and childcare companies.

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

The criteria for the competition call for businesses to fill unmet gaps in the community and hopefully create living wage jobs or sustainable owner-operated businesses.

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

Johnson imagines this culture could develop at Woodstock. He moved to Vermont to raise a family and enjoyed Woodstock’s school system, tight-knit community and outdoors. He works remotely and thinks the Windsor County resort is attracting more remote workers like him.

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

This year, the township instituted a scheme to pay landlords to convert short-term rentals into long-term rentals. The plan aims to ease the town’s housing shortage, which has been exacerbated by the village’s appeal to tourists. If the landlord agrees to a one-year lease with the tenant, they will receive $3,000, or $7,000 for a two-year lease.

Johnson acknowledged that “concerns arise when communities get more vacation rentals”, including through Vacasa, adding that short-term rentals could be “a secondary factor affecting housing affordability”.

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Still, he believes that when vacation rentals are licensed, taxed, and comply with local regulations, they can be “an active part of most communities.”

While it’s a new idea, start-up Woodstock could go from strength to strength if it proves successful, according to organizers. Applicants can apply until Dec. 1, when a judging panel will be announced by Dec. 15 to narrow it down to a group of finalists. These finalists will present their ideas in February and a winner will be selected shortly thereafter.

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