By Jenny Neyman
Ten award recipients were thanked for their contributions to the community at the annual Soldotna Chamber of Commerce awards Jan. 12, yet the recipients took the opportunity to thank Soldotna right back for being a welcoming and supportive place to live and do business.
Suzanne Evans had her Mountain Mamma Originals recognized as Small Business of the Year.
“I love what I do and I love our community. I’ve been here since ’06. … I do recognize a lot of people and I feel really close. When I go to the store I get hugs, and it’s nice to be able to feel like you’re a part of something, and you’re appreciated,” Evans said.
The Commitment to Customer Service Award winner, Lambert Lavea, of Printer’s Ink, gave especially high praise for his adopted home, having moved from a place where many like to travel.
“Born and raised in Hawaii, but this is my home. I love this place, oh my goodness. … I found the gold mine here,” he said.
The Excellence in Profession Award and Volunteer of the Year were both raised in Soldotna, went out into the world after high school, yet found their way back home. Joel Todd was recognized for his work at the Soldotna Parks and Recreation Department, bringing his experience in running Boys and Girls Club and community schools programs in Washington and Oregon.
“We all leave for a little bit, realize how amazing this place is and can’t wait to come back,” Todd said.
Chamber President Ryan Kapp noted Mike Crawford’s many volunteer efforts in the community, particularly in organizing events for Tsalteshi Trails Association last year.
“Thanks to Mike, Tsalteshi Trails Association help more races, activities, workshops and events than ever before in the organization’s 25-year history,” Kapp said.
The Commitment to Youth Award went to Vergine Hedberg of Vergine’s Dance Studio, who recently retired and sold her studio after nearly 30 years teaching youth dance, discipline and dedication in Soldotna.
Business of the Year went to Pizza Boys, which began when the Smithwick family bought Olympic Pizza and made it their own. Today, says owner Jenny Smithwick-Aley, the business has an expanded menu as well as a new interior and exterior with an eye toward community beautification.
“Our community is so supportive and I love being a part of it,” Smithwick-Aley said.
Other longtime area residents were recognized for their many contributions. Sen. Peter Micciche was given the Government and Civic Affairs Award, while longtime chamber board member Becky Hutchinson was given the President’s Award.
“(Hutchinson) is always the first to raise her hand when volunteers are needed, and she brings her megawatt smile no extra charge,” Kapp said.
The Pioneer Award went to a pillar of the real estate community, who started out on the peninsula living in a cabin in Sterling with an outhouse and no running water. Dave Keating opened Peninsula Realty and with his partners started Freedom Realty in 1986, eventually becoming the owner-broker. He recently sold the business and mostly retired, at age 74.
“For the last 45 years Dave has been instrumental in the development of land, homes, business and, most of all, quality realty on the Kenai,” Kapp said.
Tim Navarre was named Person of the Year. In addition to his many terms of public service as an elected official, Navarre is active throughout the community.
Borough Mayor Mike Navarre accepted the award for his brother.
“Our folks supported lots of different organizations and events that the community had, and they taught us that you give back to your community. Tim takes it to a different level,” Navarre said.