WILTON — Downtown Wilton isn’t as empty as a passerby driving down Main Street might think. There are two restaurants, two beauty salons, a computer services company, a grocery store, a hardware store, one museum (and a second in the works) and even a scuba shop.

Just down the street from the Wilton Free Public Library and next to the Wilton Post Office at 430 Main St. is a long sprawling white building — the former home of Wilton Hardware and one of a few remaining empty storefronts in Wilton’s downtown.

Local businessmen Josh Michaud and Jeff Chaisson own the building, including the 2,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor and the two apartments upstairs, as part of their small property management company, Wilson Stream Properties.

But people aren’t exactly lining up at their office to start a business in Wilton, so when it came time to market the retail space to possible business occupants, Michaud said they wanted to get creative with their approach.

To create excitement and incentive for a new business to move into the downtown space, Wilson Stream Properties has launched an entrepreneur contest, in which applicants with a new business idea or a desire to expand their existing business can take a shot at occupying the 430 Main St. storefront and receiving the $15,000 incentive package that comes with it.

“The town of Wilton is definitely going through some revitalization, (and) we wanted to hopefully bring in something unique to this area,” Michaud said. “Unfortunately not a lot of people are knocking down your door to start businesses these days. This (contest) been done in a couple different areas, and we followed that success to try and replicate here.”

Similar competitions have been held to fill storefronts in Livermore and Skowhegan, offering entrepreneurs differing incentive packages to ease some of the difficulties individuals face when trying to get a new business off the ground.

Initial business pitches are due by Sept. 9 and will include an application submitted to Wilson Stream Properties’ website, wilsonstreamproperties.com, stating in about a paragraph the business proposal. A committee including Chaisson, Michaud, Town Manager Rhonda Irish, Franklin County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Penny Meservier and Greater Franklin Development Council Executive Director Alison Hagerstrom will choose the top five applicants by Sept. 23.

Those five will then move on to the second phase of the contest where they will submit a business plan to the committee by Oct. 21. To develop their business plan, applicants may get assistance from the Greater Franklin Development Council or other business organizations. The committee will announce the winner by Nov. 25.

CONTEST PERKS

Irish, who has been a strong advocate of downtown revitalization, said the competition is not only a great opportunity for new business to come into the area, but also for an entrepreneur to get help in starting their business.

“It offers a really great opportunity for someone to come in and not have to worry about quite the whole gamut of cost that there would be when moving into a downtown,” she said.

The $15,000 incentive package in the Wilton contest includes up to a full year of free rent for the space, with the potential for reduced rent in the second and third years, and three months of free air time for advertising on WKTJ. A free website will also be built for the winning business by Expenet, a Wilton-based computer service company owned by Michaud and Chaisson. It also includes a gift card to Wilton Hardware, owned by Chaisson.

Michaud and Chaisson started Expenet five years ago in Wilton and have since expanded the business to include a second storefront in Farmington. Michaud said that having gone through the process of starting a business once, he feels confident he could do it again, but taking the leap of starting your first business can be overwhelming.

Smithfield resident Amanda Clark, who won the Skowhegan competition in February with her business, The Maine Barkery, said she knew she wanted to expand her dog treat bakery outside of her kitchen, but she knew that doing it on her own would be difficult.

“It’s scary. It’s so scary and a lot of people, they run away from that,” Clark said. “It definitely helps when you don’t have to front the money because there are so many other things you have to worry about.”

Since winning the competition, Clark has moved her business out of her kitchen and into a storefront at 134 Water St. in Skowhegan, where she pays reduced rent as part of the $20,000 incentive package she received.

Clark said Wednesday that the business is doing well since she opened her storefront in April. She said summer tourism is driving foot traffic into the store.

A $10,000 forgivable loan from Skowhegan Savings Bank, part of the Skowhegan contest incentive package, has allowed Clark to purchase commercial grade refrigeration and baking equipment. She said the ability to make the bakery’s offerings at a higher volume with the new equipment has driven up the wholesale side of her business. Before the competition, Clark was selling her treats in 12 stores in Maine and now that number has jumped to more than 30.

Hagerstrom worked with Michaud and Chaisson in creating the contest idea to market their rental property. With the goal of the Greater Franklin County Development council being to promote and attract business to Franklin County, she said it was great to see two local entrepreneurs offering to help bring new entrepreneurs to the area.

“Jeff and Josh are two of our creative entrepreneurs and that they are taking a risk in the town that they love… and bringing life back,” Hagerstrom said.

BUSINESS FRIENDLY REGION

The 430 Main St. property is one of four empty storefronts in the downtown area, according to Irish.

Since G.H. Bass and Co. left Wilton about 15 years ago and U.S. Route 2 was rerouted away from Wilton’s downtown, attracting business has been difficult.

“There are a number of open storefronts in this area that are listed with Realtors or they have the for rent sign up, and that’s the way they’ve stayed,” Michaud said. “The unfortunate aspect is there is not a lot of businesses looking at Wilton at this point, but we’re looking to change that because Wilton will be an up and coming town.”

Hagerstrom said that while Franklin County as a rural area doesn’t have a critical mass that larger companies may need to prosper, the region has an adaptable workforce and a “good balance of outdoor recreation, manufacturing and higher education,” which together create a good climate for small businesses.

“Franklin County likes independent business, they like to support independent small business. So I think Franklin County is a great place for entrepreneurs, and we have lots of them,” Hagerstrom said.

Wilton’s downtown also offers unique natural draws not commonly found in downtown areas, Hagerstrom said, including a stream that runs parallel to Main Street and a large lake, Wilson Lake, anchoring the downtown.

The entrepreneur contest is one more link in a chain of development and revitalization projects in Wilton’s downtown, as well as elsewhere in town.

Work on a $400,000 downtown revitalization project is set to break ground in September. Selectmen will open bids for the project at their Aug. 11 meeting and will award them soon after, Irish said. The project will be funded with a grant the town received last year from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

Once the bid process is through, work can begin on sprucing up several amenities in the downtown area including new streetlights, new street signs, sidewalk improvements and parking improvements.

With the revitalization project aiming to make downtown more inviting and walkable, Michaud said that will benefit the downtown business climate

“All of that helps create more foot traffic and makes it more inviting for people to come off of Route 2 and into Wilton,” he said.

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate