A baker, a creative nonprofit, and the oldest volunteer radio DJ in the country were among the recipients of the Paonia Chamber of Commerce's 2017 community awards. The awards were presented Feb. 8 during the organization's annual board meeting held at Wisehart Springs Inn.

The "Small Business of the Year" award went to Chris Jacobson, who in 2015 founded Paonia Bread Works. In the early days, said emcee Betsy Marston, Jacobson delivered products by bicycle and would trade bread for local produce. "He sort of demonstrates that idealism: I can be a business guy," said Marston.

Last July Jacobson expanded his offerings and opened a store front at 530 Grand Avenue, formerly the Auction House. He will soon expand his hours into the evenings.

Awards can be overrated, said Jacobson, but this "is probably the best award I've ever gotten." Since his business would not exist without the community, Jacobson said he seeks to serve the community with a combination of "great tastes and good feelings and reciprocity with all of you."

The North Fork Valley Creative Coalition was named "Non-Profit of the Year" for its "vision and devotion to seeing a thriving creative community." The coalition manages the North Fork Valley Creative District, one of 21 creative districts designated by Colorado Creative Industries, a division of the Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

"What we understand is that the arts are an economic booster of where we live," said Marston.

"This is a really big honor," said NFVCC board president Susie Kaldis Lowe. Since 2011 the NFVCC has supported the arts by building community, economic resiliency and diversity through the creative sector. NFVCC also manages the downtown Final Friday Frolics, and a Labor Day Arts and Agriculture tour of the area. They are currently working with other rural communities and arts organizations to develop the state's first "Colorado Creative Corridor." The project has already received $50,000 in grants.

In presenting the annual Volunteer of the Year award, "There are volunteers who put their soul, their heart into a nonprofit, and then there's Felix Belmont," said Marston. To honor his decades of service to the community, the chamber presented Belmont with the "Lifetime Volunteer Award." Belmont, a founding member and 40-plus year volunteer DJ at KVNF Public Radio, turns 100 this year and was recognized for his "relentless support of the North Fork Valley Community." Belmont chose to retire in Paonia, "But never really retired," said Marston.

"You all made KVNF possible," said Belmont. "KVNF is a community station. It belongs to all of us."

A special "Game Changer" award went to Elevate Fiber, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Delta-Montrose Electric Association, for "being an industry innovator and bringing the power of high-speed internet to the North Fork Valley."

They were honored, said Marston, "Because where would we be without high-speed internet?"

DMEA board members Brad Harding and John Gavan were key to getting DMEA to see the value in the concept, said Marston. Since going live in Paonia in 2016, broadband has become "an incredible economic boost" to the area.

Gavan, who represents North Fork area DMEA members, said that once the decision was made three years ago to move ahead with the project, "The staff team just took it and ran with it. I've seen a lot of network built in my career, but I've never seen a network built this fast and run this well and make so many happy people."

"It's just great to see the recognition for the hard work that's been done and the vision that the board had," said DMEA CEO Jasen Bronec.

The project could not have happened without the support of DMEA's membership, said Bronec. "We're just stewards of the assets that are owned by our members and we're really and truly here to extend and improve the quality of life for our membership and to operate and be good stewards of the assets that are trusted to us."

The Chamber also recognized DCI reporter Tamie Meck as "Journalist of the Year" for "all the extra hours and effort put in to report on and share the cool things happening in the North Fork Valley."

The Chamber opened with a brief business meeting. Despite having to make some cuts, it was a successful year, said board president Annette Pretorius.

First, the bad news. The chamber closed its downtown visitor center after a year of operation. Despite all that it has accomplished, "as volunteer board members, we don't have the time... to maintain a staff person and an office and visitor," said Chamber treasurer Theresa Menzel.

By closing the center and letting its one employee go, the chamber can now focus on providing more and better services to its members, said Menzel.

The good news: Membership has grown. In 2014 the Chamber took in $4,500 in membership dues. In 2015 they collected $15,000, and in 2017 they brought in $17,000. While they have experienced growth, membership is leveling off, said Menzel. In looking ahead, "We're going to be ok." The Chamber is even starting to look at adding new events.

Jim Brett has taken over maintenance of the Chamber website, which links the community to the outside world. It "is possibly the best benefit offered to members," said Pretorius. The site received about 34,000 hits in 2017. For most members, said Pretorius, the website ranks higher than their business website due to the many businesses listed on the site.

"Business Bingo," sponsored by Elevate Fiber, brought traffic and customers to the downtown core during the Mountain Harvest Festival. The Chamber also pooled money to advertise the Downtown Day held in conjunction with the July 4 Cherry Days celebration, and the Holiday Fair held between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

The annual Oktoberfest, the Chamber's main fundraiser, was held at Edesia Warehouse and was a big success. The Chamber also provided welcome packets for Realtors to give new residents when they close on their home.

This year's focus will be on website maintenance, Facebook promotions, and promotion of the Chamber's many events. The Chamber will also continue to focus on meeting goals with volunteers, while understanding that they also have jobs.

With payables of $4,000 and a $5,000 line of credit, largely due to costs related to the visitor center, the Chamber is also focusing on reducing debt while continuing to grow and support business members, said Menzel.

The Chamber is also seeking new board members to oversee events and help with administrative tasks. "I know that everyone's busy and we're all trying to make a living," said Pretorius. "If there's just one thing you have a heart for, we could use help."

Visit paoniachamber.com for more information.

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