Second-home owner makes second major area contribution
WILMINGTON - The application period has opened for Make It on Main Street, a contest that will award a prospective business owner $20,000 to open his or her business in Wilmington’s downtown district. The contest, which is an effort of Wilmington Works, sprang from an idea from second-home owner Paul Pabst, who also donated a majority of the funds being used for the prize money.
Pabst won the money on Sports Jeopardy, hosted by Dan Patrick, who also has a second home in the valley. Pabst produces “The Dan Patrick Show,” and has been a contestant on Sports Jeopardy twice. The first time he was on, three years ago, he donated much of his winnings to Ability Plus at Mount Snow.
“Then recently, I got to have a rematch, and I was lucky enough to win again,” says Pabst, whose full-time residence is in Connecticut. “And I started looking for another Vermont charity I could donate to.”
Pabst says Wilmington’s downtown district came to mind. “My daughter was actually born the afternoon of Tropical Storm Irene, in Bridgeport, CT,” he says. “A few weeks later we drove to Vermont and saw how bad it was hit. It looked like a long road back.”
A friend told him about Wilmington Works, and Pabst says he started to like the idea of a “Shark Tank-style competition” to bring more life to downtown, furthering the work that was already being done by Wilmington Works, the chamber, and the economic development departments of Wilmington and Dover. He reached out to Wilmington Economic Development Consultant Gretchen Havreluk. “We met in her office on a Sunday morning, and I told her my idea,” says Pabst.
Havreluk says she was immediately inspired by Pabst’s energy and enthusiasm. “I really love how much he loves Vermont,” says Havreluk. “He comes here and immerses himself in the community and does really great things for our community. And he has the most creative and unique ideas.”
One of those ideas was Make It on Main Street. Between now and October, hopefuls will compete for a chance to win the $20,000, plus additional prizes from The Deerfield Valley News, the Southern Vermont Deerfield Valley Chamber of Commerce, and the Richards Group.
Initial applications to participate in the contest are due July 16. By August 1, five hopefuls will be chosen by a panel of judges to move on to the semifinal round. Semifinalists will spend August 1 to September 15 perfecting their business plans, which can be up to 30 pages. During that period, each semifinalist will be matched with a business plan mentor and will receive free business plan counseling from the Vermont Small Business Development Center.
“For businesses that go through the application process and don’t end up winning, they’ll still benefit from all of the counseling and mentoring that is available,” says Lisa Sullivan, Wilmington Works chair and owner of Bartleby’s Books. “And maybe we’ll end up with more than one new business because there’s some energy and excitement around entering a business downtown.”
The business plans will be presented to the panel of judges, and by October 1, the group of five will become three. Then, on October 18, the three finalists will give 15-minute oral presentations to the panel of judges. All three rounds of judging will culminate that night at a public reception where the winner will be announced.
One panel of judges will oversee the contest throughout its duration. They are Sullivan; Pabst; Rep. John Gannon, who serves on the selectboard; Peter Carvell from Brattleboro Savings and Loan; and Adam Grinold from BDCC, who is also a local.
“We wanted a mix of people who have knowledge of the town and had ties to the town,” says Staloff.
Pabst was in town last week for a kickoff event for the contest, where members of the community talked about the contest and had an “idea jam,” where ideas for what may come out of the contest were shared.
“It ended up being a lot of ideas of what people want to see,” said Sullivan. Ideas included a shoe store, a bakery, a noodle restaurant, a pet supplies store, and a particularly woodsy, Vermont-inspired idea from Pabst.
“I suggested a store that sells all plaid items,” says Pabst with a laugh. “That got shot down really fast. Though I do think people liked the idea.”
Havreluk happily entertains the plaid idea. “You could have plaid everything, even plaid plates,” she says. “And there are so many different varieties of plaid. I could see it.”
Plaid or no plaid, Pabst, Havreluk, Sullivan, and Wilmington Works program coordinator Meg Staloff all say many of the ideas centered around businesses that provide items that would be useful both to visitors and locals and that will be consistently open and available.
“If you have things that people are leaving the valley for, then there’s kind of a built-in market already,” says Sullivan. “And you really want to have a business that focuses on everybody. That people who live in or visit this area can come to. And to do that you have to be open. So consistent hours, open all the time if you can. There are a number of businesses like that in the downtown that have been open a long time.”
Concepts will be judged based on a scoring rubric, which is available on Wilmington Works’ website. It includes categories such as whether the business adds diversity to the mix of businesses downtown; whether it’s viable; whether it fills a community need; whether it creates jobs; whether it will help boost foot traffic downtown; the quality of the application; and whether the business has a match to a potentially-available vacant space.
“It’s an open book test,” says Staloff. “We’ve put all of the information out there.”
Entrants are encouraged to contact Havreluk about their ideas and where in the downtown district they could possibly land should their business plans take off.
“They can run an idea to me,” says Havreluk. “And I’m able to make sure that they understand that there are resources available beyond the $20,000. Wilmington has a revolving loan program where they can get up to $20,000 with flexible terms. We have a tax stabilization policy in place if they’re purchasing a building. Because we’re in a downtown district, there are also multiple state incentives available, like tax credits. There are many resources that I want people to know about and access.”
Havreluk admits that it’s her hope that the contest will inspire more than one business to join the downtown district. Staloff and Sullivan echo that hope.
“We really hope that there’s going to be a great business that’s added to downtown,” says Sullivan. “We also hope that then there are going to be more businesses added to the downtown that are spinoffs from that, from the excitement and energy that goes into something like this. This allows Wilmington a great platform to talk about this being a great place to do business.”
All are excited to discover what might be on the horizon for Main Street. “I find it to be a really exciting time,” says Havreluk. “How generous, and wow. This is really just a shot in the arm that we really needed.”