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

Cliff Johnson, left, and Larry Niles, two of the founders of Novice Woodstock, hope to spark new business. Photo by Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

WOODSTOCK – May the best business win.

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

“The idea is that whenever the company comes close to solving some critical need in the community, this is a great addition,” said Cliff Johnson, one of the organizers and judges of the startup Woodstock.

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

Johnson, along with John Spector and Larry Niles, both members of the city’s Economic Development Commission, are organizing the Woodstock race, which focuses on issues such as housing, child care and downtown revitalization. The commission provided $10,000 for the contest, with an additional $20,000 coming from private donors.

“We really want people to come here,” Niels said. We will do our best to open a business to solve some of these obvious problems or obstacles.

High rents downtown contribute to barriers, Niels said, along with the perception that Woodstock has a difficult bureaucracy for prospective business owners to navigate. While the former may be true, it refutes the latter, stating that nearly all business owners surveyed by the commission had positive experiences with local government.

Niles rejects the idea that Woodstock only caters to certain customers.

“I always worry that we’re a rich city; Because we are many businessmen and many people who have lived here all their lives,” he said.

With that in mind, Niles and Johnson said they hope to cast a wide net by recruiting potential applicants for the start-up Woodstock prize fund. Those whose ideas may be in their infancy are invited to apply. So are service-based companies such as electrical, landscaping and childcare companies.

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

The competition’s criteria require the business to fill an unmet gap in the community and hopefully create living wage jobs or a sustainable owner-operated business.

If successful, Johnson said he believes the competition will “create a culture of entrepreneurship and empower people to create their own opportunities.”

Johnson speculates that such a culture could develop at Woodstock. He moved to Vermont to raise his family, enjoying Woodstock’s school system, close-knit community and exposure to the outdoors. He works remotely, and sees Windsor County as a vacation destination for remote workers like him.

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

This year, the city created a program for landlords to convert short-term rentals to long-term rentals. The program aims to alleviate the city’s housing shortage, which is due to the village’s attractiveness to tourists. Property owners received $3,000 for a one-year lease and $7,000 for a two-year lease.

Johnson said short-term rentals can be a “smaller contributor to housing affordability,” citing “threats that come when a community adds more vacation rentals,” including through Vacasa.

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 can grow if it’s successful, organizers say. Applicants can apply until December 1, at which time a panel of judges will be announced until December 15 to narrow down the competition to a group of finalists. Those finalists will present their ideas in February and the winner will be chosen soon. After that.

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