The Columbia County Chamber of Commerce commemorated its first independent year in a big way with an Academy Awards-style celebration Monday at the Savannah Rapids Pavilion.
The chamber's first year independent of the Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce was a successful one, Executive Director Gordon Renshaw said at the dinner meeting. The chamber grew by 220 members in 2005, ending the year with more than 700 members, and increased revenues by 48 percent.
"It would be nice to in 2007 for us to be banging on the door of 1,000 members, wouldn't it?" Renshaw said, after noting that the 2006 membership goal is 800 members.
Several chamber members were honored at the inaugural annual member celebration and awards night.
Chamber board member Dr. Gary Crook, owner of 1 Hour Optical, earned the chamber's 2005 Small Business Person of the Year award following past recipients Larry Lynn, Jake Ivey and Tommy Norris.
"I'd like to say to all the business owners, you are the heartbeat of America and you are the job creators in this great nation," Crook said after thanking his family and staff. "I appreciate you and I'll accept this award on your behalf."
Lee Clark, the chairman of the award committee, said the decision was difficult to make. The committee chose Crook based on his business success, business philosophy, challenges he faced and the strategies he used to overcome them, his community involvement and membership on boards, councils and clubs.
"He did have the 'build it and they will come' philosophy," Clark said of Crook, who opened the Martinez business in 2003 with no patients. "He believed that if he had practice, did some advertising and most importantly took really good care of the people who came in that he would win and be successful."
Crook's business strategies worked, Clark said, growing the optometry business at 217 Bobby Jones Expressway to serve 1,500 customers with 200-400 new patients each month. 1 Hour Optical was voted the best in his field in 2003-05 by readers of The Columbia County News-Times.
"It was a struggle," Crook said after receiving the award. "We did start with absolutely no patient charts and today it's grown into a pretty startling business ... I'd like to thank my patients, some of you are in this room. You've been kind enough to refer your family and friends to me and we are very grateful."
Crook was not the only chamber volunteer honored at the meeting. The Ambassador of the Year award was presented to chamber executive committee member Melissa Canady, marketing director for Serotta Maddocks Evans and Co. CPAs.
Cheryl Culpepper, the chairwoman of the Ambassador selection committee, said the chamber has 30 professionals who volunteer to attend groundbreakings, ribbon cuttings and other special events. But the award recognizes one volunteer who put in a little extra time and effort.
Culpepper said Canady verifies all information sent to the media from chamber members, informs the media of ribbon-cuttings and other special events and writes and sends press releases.
"Without her attention to detail and her ongoing personal touch, this would not have been such a successful year," Culpepper said.
The chamber also awarded its inaugural Columbia County Lifetime Achievement Award to former state legislator Bill Jackson for his contributions to the county and state through public service.
Jackson attributed his success to his family and mentor John Pierce Blanchard, who first convinced him to serve on the Columbia County Board of Education.
"I enjoyed that four years of public service more than any other time in my life," Jackson said. "... I believe public life is just what it says, it is serving for those who can't particularly help themselves sometimes. If you can take the position in which those people give you and make something happen for those who can't, that's the pleasure I've had."
The evening of dinner and awards was a way to celebrate the chamber's year, honor those who made the chamber a success and announce goals for 2006.
"It's been an exciting year and tremendous year in 2005 for your Columbia County Chamber of Commerce," Renshaw said. "... And you haven't seen anything yet.''
Renshaw said goals for 2006 include growing existing programs such as the Power Luncheon, Ambassador Program, Industry/Education Partnership and the chamber's annual golf tournament. Renshaw also hopes the chamber will begin new programs including the formation of a Recruitment/Retention Committee and a Hospitality Committee.
"I think Columbia County is showing so much promise and so much growth," master of ceremonies Harley Drew said, adding that he remembers when much of Columbia County was rural compared to today's business and industry.
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