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As part of Dover’s economic development efforts, an open public brainstorming idea jam took place on Aug. 31 at Deerfield Bar & Bottle as part of an effort to analyze the town’s current mix of businesses and what needs could be filled by new entrepreneurial activity.

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For one new venture, Dover offers a $20,000 prize

Business plan contest seeks to give local economy a boost — and considerable support for a few runners-up

DOVER—Dreaming of opening a distillery, maker space, child care center, or golf simulator? You may be in luck.

Town officials are thinking outside the box in an effort to encourage new businesses here with Dover Launch, a competition through which the person with the winning plan will receive $20,000 to help make their new business happen.

Dover Economic Development Director Eric Durocher says the contest format was chosen “because we like the idea of the amount of interest it brings towards the opportunities in Dover.”

“I believe this format opens the opportunity to a wider audience who may not feel as confident or ready with other options when it comes to starting their business,” Durocher says. “The winner of this competition is taking the chance on what could be a life-changing amount of money for their budding business idea, and it absolutely adds that extra layer of excitement.”

The $20,000 prize money will come from the town’s previously collected 1-percent local-option sales tax. In Dover, this is collected and used for economic development in the form of incentives to local businesses, events, trails and recreation, and a number of other programs. An added $5,000 in free radio advertising will be given to the winner by WTHK-FM 100.7 (“The Peak”).

Special consideration will be given to businesses providing new services or goods to the Dover community and current business mix.

Applicants must make initial applications by Friday, Sept. 17 (visit discoverdover.com for submission details) offering “birds’-eye-views” of their business ideas.

Those applications will got to a five-person panel, including a Dover business owner, a Dover resident, and representatives from Mount Snow, Brattleboro Savings & Loan, and the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC).

Applications will be narrowed to five. Those five will have a month to establish full business plans with the assistance of assigned mentors and access to LivePlan, a subscription-based online service for creating a business plan and analyzing business scenarios and results.

Judges will then review the five and choose three, who will have two weeks to prepare verbal and visual presentations for November, when the judges will deliberate and select a winner on the spot.

“The beautiful thing about what we’re doing is that, yes, somebody will walk away with $20,000 and $5,000 in free radio advertising, but on top of that we have this loan program through the town and BDCC, so two to four eligible businesses could turn to that program and still get themselves off the ground,” Durocher says.

For recipients of these small business loans, the BDCC will offer a 10 percent match in the form of technical assistance, and the town of Dover will pay BDCC another 10-percent match to help pay down the loans for the first year.

‘No issues with the retention of businesses’

Durocher says that despite the onset of COVID-19 and temporary closures and changes to Dover businesses, “they are actually faring better than most.”

“This competition is not a result of pandemic closures, but more out of efforts to grow and support our local economy,” he says. “We did not lose any businesses to the pandemic, but it has definitely changed the way a lot of our businesses operate.”

“The empty spaces available for these new businesses are coming from businesses who have outgrown their spaces and moved, have recently been renovated and are ready to be leased, or recently changed uses or have been vacant. There have been no issues with the retention of businesses, even with the pandemic, so I consider us very lucky there.”

R.T. Hamilton Brown, BDCC Director of Business Acceleration and “Head INSTIG8’r,” calls the past year and a half “quite dynamic.”

“As an organization, BDCC stood up the Business Resiliency Program and ran several statewide programs offering mitigation resources,” Brown says. “We’ve had a lot of exposure to many businesses spanning a wide variety of sectors.”

“The hardest hit were lodging/hospitality and restaurants,” he continues. “However, due to a number of federal and state programs, many have persisted. Pre–delta variant, those segments really started to bounce.”

“I can’t really say yet if business is waning due to the latest variant,” Brown says. “Businesses that transitioned well to e-commerce have done quite well throughout the pandemic.”

Brown says the BDCC is hearing from employers across the region that it has been “very difficult” to find workers to fill open positions.

“This was a challenge before the pandemic and has been exacerbated since,” he says. “Businesses that were able to pivot have done quite well, especially if the product or service offered can be done so online through e-commerce.”

Still, he sees signs of “resiliency and vibrancy” and, in the past month, has had 25 queries for business technical assistance in business planning, access to capital, and business formation.

Brown and the BDCC support business plan competitions such as Dover Launch.

“Business plan competitions not only provide seed funding that is not debt to new businesses, but also help promote what’s possible here in southern Vermont,” he says. “BDCC has worked to create a culture of entrepreneurism through the program INSTIG8, and we need more events in the region to celebrate founders.”

Several years ago, Wilmington Works — that town’s designated downtown organization — hosted a similar competition, and all three businesses that received funds are still in business. Of those three, one was founded by people from outside the region who now live here.

“That’s a great success,” says Brown. “We are confident Dover’s competition will be a success, too. One of southern Vermont’s greatest assets is the creativity of our neighbors and there are many, many good ideas waiting to surface and events like a business plan competition helps to do that.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #629 (Wednesday, September 8, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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