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 encourage new businesses. 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.

Cliff Johnson, one of the organizers and judges of Startup Woodstock, said, “The idea is, the closer the company gets to solving some critical need in the community, it’s a big advantage.

Johnson moved with his family 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 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 downtown revitalization. The commission provided $10,000 for the competition, with an additional $20,000 coming from private donors.

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

High rents downtown contribute to the barriers, Niles said, along with the perception that Woodstock has a difficult bureaucracy to navigate for potential 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 local government.

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

He said: “I still shudder to think that we are just a rich city, because we have many merchants and many 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 money. Those whose ideas may only be in their infancy are invited to apply. So are service-based businesses such as electric companies, gardening and daycare.

“A $30,000 grant can help someone launch a new daycare business very easily,” Johnson said.

The competition criteria requires that the business fill an unmet need 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 create their own destiny.”

Johnson imagines this kind of culture could grow in Woodstock. He moved to Vermont to raise his family, enjoying the Woodstock school system, strong community and access to the outdoors. He works remotely, and sees the vacation destination of Windsor County as an attraction for more remote workers like him.

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 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 to long-term rentals. The program aims to ease the lack of housing in the city, which has become more serious due to the attractiveness of the village to 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.

Johnson acknowledged that “the concern that comes when a community gets more vacation rentals,” including Vacasa, and added that short-term rentals may be a “minor factor that contributes to housing affordability.”

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

Even though it’s a new idea, Startup Woodstock could grow if it proves successful, according to organizers. Applicants can apply until December 1st, at which time a panel of judges will announce they will narrow the field to a group of finalists by December 15th. These finalists will present their ideas in February, and a winner will be chosen soon. After that.

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