By Katy Savage
WOODSTOCK—Woodstock has a plan to combat empty storefronts: free rent.
The Economic Development Commission launched a start-up grant initiative to fund two months of free rent to any business that moves to the village.
“What we hope to have is a thriving base of retailers and restaurateurs,” said said Charlie Kimbell,an EDC member and state representative.
Kimbell, who has owned Elevation Clothing in Woodstock with his wife for about 10 years, said the EDC considered a number of options to fill the empty storefronts, but this seemed like it would be the most effective.
There are currently three vacant stores in the downtown area – two on Central Street and one on Elm Street. All them are owned by absentee landlords.
“The [landlords] don’t have any real desire to see them filled because some of them have been vacant for over a year,” EDC Executive Director Sally Miller said.
Funding for the grant is coming from Woodstock’s 1 percent meals and room option tax, which generates about $250,000 a year.
The grant is capped at $2.50 per square foot per person.
The use of EDC funds have been controversial, with some business owners questioning how the EDC has benefited their business.
Nick Ferro, a former EDC member who has owned Ferro Jewelers in Woodstock 40 years, doesn’t think the incentive will be enough.
“I don’t think giving people rent for two months is going to change whether a business really opens in Woodstock or succeeds in Woodstock,” Ferro said. “The first thing you’re going to think about is what happens in the third month?”
Despite the controversy, Woodstock Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Beth Finlayson hopes filling the empty spaces helps all Woodstock businesses.
“It looks like a vibrant and healthy downtown when all the stores are filled,” said Finalyson.
The EDC has set aside $20,000 for the fund the program for a year with the intent of reviewing its success after a year.
To qualify, a prospective tenant must sign a year-long lease in a space that’s been unoccupied for at least 180 days. The new business can’t be a national chain. The free two-month grant money will be provided after six months.
“We want to make sure they last at least six months,” Kimbell said.
Miller said there’s already been at least one interested business.
“If it can bring a couple new businesses to town it’s a very good economic development idea,” Finlayson said. “It may be a way to encourage someone who’s really thought of opening a business.”