By Richard Schramm
Economic Development Commission
Fourteen businesses in Woodstock that completed the Economic Development Commission survey last March categorized themselves as providing professional, scientific, and technical services. This was second only to the Retail sector in terms of number of businesses responding.
For confidentiality these businesses were not asked to identify themselves further but these services include, for example, legal, tax, architects, landscape, engineering, drafting, surveying, testing, graphic design, computer systems design, management consulting, advertising, marketing, and security.
Most of the companies responding were small (85 percent had fewer than 5 employees), had sales below $500,000 (86 percent) and half were sole proprietorships.
Interestingly, 71 percent of these businesses provided more services to distant customers than to individuals and organizations within 20 miles of Woodstock. In other words, most were located in Woodstock for reasons that go beyond access to local customers.
One business may have spoken for others with the comment: “Because I am a sole proprietor, my needs are limited. The big issues that affect someone like me are good internet access; pleasant, affordable office space; professional business services (bookkeeping, accountant, copy shop, etc.); and a lively downtown (cafes, restaurants, bookstores, cultural events) that makes it desirable for me to have my office in town.”
Advantages and Disadvantages of Doing Business in Woodstock
Since many of the professional, scientific and technical businesses reporting could conduct their businesses in many different places, it’s not surprising that they ranked elements of Woodstock’s quality of life very high. All considered the natural environment and recreational choices an advantage, three-quarters felt that way about the sense of community, and two-thirds about cultural opportunities and public safety.
One respondent put it simply and directly: “These are the factors that made me chose to live and locate my business here.”
On the business-side, half considered access to high speed internet an advantage (another 41 percent, presumably without high speed internet, ranked it a disadvantage) and one-third found access to professional and business services and customers an advantage.
A major disadvantage to doing business in Woodstock was access to equipment service and repair (67 percent) and its high cost (50 percent). This was followed by traffic and parking (50 percent), public transportation (42 percent), property taxes (42 percent), transportation (33 percent) access to and cost of trained workers (33 percent) and cost of commercial space (33 percent).
Office space was an issue for some. As one business put it, “the amount of pleasant, affordable office space is limited. I have a good situation now, but if that changed, I know I would struggle to find an option.”
Impediments to Viability and Growth
A third of the businesses acknowledged that they faced “critical impediments to remaining viable as a business in Woodstock” slightly below the average for all 99 businesses responding to the survey (35 percent), while 42 percent reported that they had plans “to expand or grow your business in Woodstock in the next three years,” higher than the average for all business reporting (35 percent) and for other sectors like retail and accommodations.
While the data suggest that professional, scientific and technical service businesses are among the more successful in Woodstock, these businesses did report some impediments to their viability and growth. In addition to the availability and cost of equipment service and repair, they commented on the need for a more highly trained workforce (which may explain why only 16 percent considered Woodstock’s public education system an advantage and 25 percent ranked it as a disadvantage) and high office rental rates.
Actions to Strengthen the Woodstock Economy
These businesses, like most of the 99 businesses that responded to the survey, had a lot of suggestions of how to strengthen the Woodstock economy including:
• Ensure that the effort on the East End (park and real estate development) moves forward expeditiously and in a way that demonstrates good community collaboration. Completion of this project–conducted in a constructive fashion–will not only strengthen the local economy, but also send a message that the Woodstock community can effect positive and significant change. This kind of success will beget more success. We need a big, bold and positive move–and this is it.
• Figure out a way to lower the rents for tenants in the commercial area. We have too much turn over and too many empty storefronts. It makes the town look as if it’s dying.
• I would like to see Woodstock attract more “green” businesses, because of the intrinsic benefits of such operations and to help to cultivate our reputation for being a sustainable community.
• A more enlightened, courageous and creative leadership style from the Town Fathers and their charges would be a breath of fresh air that could add immeasurably to the economic climate of this Town
• Try to develop a centralizing force that helps to coordinate community networks, organizations and activities.
• Keep the local retail businesses strong so we have the products and services we need on our doorstep
• Find more ways to involve our youth in the sense of community.
• Push for merger of town and village so there can be unity of purpose
• Fast train to Boston would be very helpful.
Reactions to the Survey Results
Charlie Kimbell, Chair of the EDC, had the following comments on the survey results:
“The professional services sector may represent the greatest opportunity for growth in the Woodstock economy. These businesses are typically very mobile so they can relocate to Woodstock fairly easily, they have low infrastructure needs and can usually be met with existing office space. Their clients often are global so they don’t have to rely on the seasonal traffic cycles in Woodstock.
At the same time, Woodstock’s strength as a vacation and second home destination attracts many professionals who often wonder “how can I make a living here” and enjoy the great quality of life. That is our greatest drawing card in attracting new businesses to the area. A real challenge for this sector is creating a critical mass of these businesses that feed off of one another and create a dynamic professional atmosphere, which would in turn attract more businesses, talented employees and complimentary support services.”
The Woodstock Town Select Board and Village Trustees established the Economic Development Commission (EDC) in early 2010 to help them plan and implement sustainable economic development In Woodstock.
This article first appeared in the July 21st print edition of the Vermont Standard.