Woodstock tries to fight empty storefronts with rent incentive

WOODSTOCK, Vt. (WCAX) Woodstock is a quintessential New England town, with covered bridges, old inns and homes, and a quaint Main Street with a variety of different stores. But, as the saying goes, there are two sides to every story.

"We don't see a lot of new businesses coming in," Kari Meutsch said.

Meutsch has owned the Yankee Bookshop for two years. She says business is good and growing but there's at least one problem.

"Unfortunately, we've got a vacant storefront next door that has been empty longer than we have been here," Meutsch said.

Around the corner is another vacant storefront. In the other direction, a pop-up shop temporarily replaces another empty spot. And behind that, yet another unused retail space.

"We've been known as the prettiest small town in America and to have an empty storefront, big, empty windows that may be dusty, et cetera, it just doesn't play very well," said Beth Finlayson of the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce.

The town's Economic Development Commission is now trying to fill the spots with an incentive. A grant for $2.50 per square foot that would be offered twice a year for a one-year lease. That equates to roughly $5,000 a year for a 1,000-square-foot space.

Real estate experts we spoke with say rent in this community runs between $2,500 and $5,000 a month, which isn't exactly cheap for businesses trying to compete with online retailers.

"It's a bit of a challenge," Finlayson said. "I think that this is a really good step in the right direction."

At least one resident WCAX News spoke with is taking the empty storefronts in stride.

"Well, I think it happens in every town," said Lorry Hoblin of Woodstock.

But she also told us that she was unaware the town was actually paying tenants to move in.

"I think it is sad," Hoblin said. "I think people should support their own stores and maybe it is a sign of the times, I don't know."

In order to receive the grant, the space must be vacant for more than six months. Some of the storefronts have sat idle for several years.

One business owner, who declined to speak on camera, told us the incentive is a Band-Aid for a bigger problem-- high rents. But others say they just want all the shops filled.

"We would love to see anything go in next door," Meutsch said.

The money for the new incentive comes from a 1 percent option tax the town implemented several years ago. Officials say that tax brings in roughly a quarter of a million dollars annually and they say it's money well spent if it helps attract new businesses to town.