WILMINGTON — The 2018 Make It On Main Street business plan competition sparked more economic activity than organizers expected.
“It seemed like a catalyst for some new energy in the city, which was great,” said Lisa Sullivan, a board member of the Wilmington Works organization. “You hope there will be that sense of energy and excitement, but realistically, you think you can just fund any business that gets funded, and that’s a great result too.”
The competition invited entrepreneurs to submit their physical business plans between 24 May and 16 July 2018. Semi-finalists were selected, assigned a business development mentor and asked to produce a full business plan by 1 October of that year. After an oral presentation on Oct. 18, the plan was for the winner to receive a $20,000 grant with an opening in downtown Wilmington within the year. The judges selected two winners to split the amount.
With some distance from the project now, Sullivan said it was “really effective at starting new economic activity.” She is involved in the planning of the competition and participates in the judging panel.
Gretchen Hawreluk, the city’s economic development consultant, said the pageant has had a snowball effect, even though it didn’t turn out the way she originally expected.
“I really thought we were going to do business on Main Street to remodel one of these buildings,” she said, noting that $20,000 doesn’t go very far in such projects.
She said she appreciates Paul Pabst’s contribution to running the pageant.
The downtown business competition begins
Pabst, executive producer of “The Dan Patrick Show,” lives in Connecticut and has a second home in Wilmington. He donated proceeds from “Sports Jeopardy.”
Butter Mountain Bakery (formally known as Beurremont) and 802 Fitness and Therapy share $20,000. Both are in the Old School community center. This helps maintain the community center, Havrelyuk said.
“So it was great,” she said.
The owners of 1a Coffee Roasters were part of a larger group that wanted to bring a coffee business downtown. Wilmington Works has agreed to provide $10,000 from its coffers once the location is finalized.
1a eventually purchased a building at 123 West Main St. Because it’s outside the designated center, the business didn’t qualify for the competition’s funds, but it recently celebrated its second anniversary since opening in Wilmington.
The owners of 1a teamed up with another business to open Starfire Bakery in an adjacent building earlier this year, then formed a team to buy the Old Red Mill Inn to house Valley Craft Ales and offer pizza and lodging.
“It gives a real boost to the economy,” Havreluk said.
She described being “really disappointed” when the judges decided to split the money because it made her job more difficult. Instead of helping the runners-up open in the city, she helped all three winners with more limited funds.
Paul Krautvorst, owner of 802 Fitness and Therapy, said the competition “helped start everything.” He worked out of a yurt in the city center and moved to the community center where his business was shown to other commercial companies interested in space.
Understanding that parting with $20,000 is for the greater good, Krautvorst noted that $10,000 to build a gym is not “a lot of money. It literally just paid for my body compensation analysis machine.”
“Everyone was great,” he said. “It was a positive experience. I would do it again.”
Croutworst has had to be creative during the COVID-19 pandemic, lending equipment for members to use at home. He recalled teaching husbands how to set their wives’ backs.
Now he’s at a point where the gym has a busy schedule and needs to find more staff to expand operations. Classes and therapy offerings are specialized.
Multiple business plan competition winners
Havreluk said he believes the city received good publicity from the pageant — multiple news outlets covered the pageant. She reported a 1 percent rise in local tax revenue after the contest, but she’s not sure if that’s a false positive because things have gone up in spending.
Every week, she said, she gets calls from people who are interested in a building or opening a business. However, she noted, Red Fox Shop and Norton House Quilting recently closed their doors.
“They closed for a variety of reasons, not a lack of economics,” she said. “It was just circumstances. But we still have to fill them.”
Havreluk doesn’t think she’d want to host another business plan competition again. She said it was a lot of work to put together and not guaranteed to produce the desired results.
There has been no initiative within the Wilmington Works to hold another competition.
“But personally, I think it works very well,” Sullivan said, so maybe we should consider it.
Sullivan said she is “thrilled” with the way the race has affected the city. She also noted how 1a and Valley Craft Ales co-owner Melissa Boyles, Crystal Holt’s sister, is now the program coordinator for Wilmington Works.
“So there’s a lot of great things that have happened,” Sullivan said.
Wilmington Works’ new program coordinator focuses on community development
Pabst recounted how Havreluk and Sullivan immediately liked his idea for a business-plan competition.
“They had the hard work of putting this together and dealing with the statements,” Pabst said.
All parties agreed that the business should be in the best interest of local residents, then skiers and tourists, Pabst said. He described all resulting businesses as meeting this rule.
The Old Red Mill Inn was the first place Pabst stayed when he first visited Vermont from Chicago in the 1990s. He called it “the center of the center.”
Valley Craft Ales on tap, serving pizza at the former Old Red Mill Inn in Wilmington
Pabst recently stopped by the Old Red Mill Inn. Brian Holt, co-owner of 1a and Valley Craft Ales, said he told Pabst that “he’s not going to be standing here talking to you if you don’t make this donation. Who knows where I would have been?’
The Holts were living in Finland and visiting Amsterdam when they came across a Facebook ad for the competition. Brian said he didn’t think much of it at the time, but the next day he offered to enter the race.
“Then all those events turned into all these projects and our full-time life in Wilmington,” he said. “We have sold all the remaining properties. We’re all in Wilmington.”
Before the race, the pair had no connection to Wilmington. Brian said his family used to drive through to ski in his childhood, but they never stayed in town.
At first, Brian Holt was captivated by how much Wilmington reminded him of Finland. He said both places value the environment and social support.
“I’ve lived everywhere from Helsinki to Las Vegas to California,” he said. “What I’ve noticed in these 20 years of traveling the world is that I want my kids to grow up in a place like Wilmington where they’re not overstimulated by all the things that are going on in society that [are] unnecessary.”
For now, Brian Holt said he feels “pretty confident” that the three projects on his plate are enough to keep him busy. He stressed the importance of offering “elevated” products and services to attract visitors to the areas.
A new generation of business owners shares a philosophy that there is “a lot for everyone,” he said. They are not competing for customers.
“You have to have options,” Brian Holt said. “You can’t have just one place.”