story and photos by Brittany Ransom
Four hundred business and community leaders came together on Thursday (June 12) evening to celebrate the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce at its 59th Annual Meeting and Banquet. With a focus on "A Bold Future," the event served to highlight achievements of the past year, and give guests a glimpse of several long-term goals set forth by Chamber and community leaders.
The event kicked off at the Van Buren Fine Arts Center with a Business Fair that featured more than four dozen local organizations and vendors. Representatives from each of the participating vendors were on-hand answering questions and sharing about the services and products they offer. Many also offered special giveaways and door prizes to those in attendance.
Following the Business Fair, guests made their way to the VBHS Commons Area for the dinner and banquet program. Lisa Huckelbury, Chamber Board Chairman, welcomed the crowd and recognized each of the Banquet sponsors. During dinner, Immediate Past Chairman Kenneth Fry introduced a "2013-Year in Review" slideshow and shared about the Chamber's recent achievements.
"The growth of the Chamber in the last few years has been incredible," said Fry. "The Chamber is going to be, if it isn't already, the premier organization in Van Buren and will pave the way for great things."
Jackie Krutsch, Executive Director of the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce, expounded on Fry's remarks and commented on the "Bold" theme of the evening.
"Our 'Bold' is about the future and what can happen in Van Buren, and in Alma, Fort Smith and the entire region," said Krutsch. "It is about a bold future for the state of Arkansas."
With that, she introduced Drew Williams, regional manager of Community Development for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC). Williams expressed his excitement on the area's significant growth over the last year and shared with guests about some of Crawford and Sebastian Counties business development statistics.
"In the past year, this region has had eight new projects that AEDC has worked with you all on, resulting in 1,200 jobs and a more than $150 million initial investment into the community," said Williams. "Crawford and Sebastian have also had ten expansion projects that resulted in 750 jobs and more than $135 million in initial investment. That is something to be really proud of."
Huckelbury continued with the "Bold Future" theme, listing several areas in which the Chamber planned to grow or expand programs to help strengthen the business community. She noted that the organization is committed to continuing its work with AEDC on incentive programs to recruit and retain businesses to the area, as well as further develop its education initiatives with local schools. She encouraged all members to "Be Bold and Daring," so as to help take the Chamber and community to the next level.
Following additional remarks about the Chamber's recent accomplishments and future goals, Krutsch and Casey Millspaugh, Chairman of the Chamber Ambassador Program, announced the Ambassadors of the Year. Raymond Harvey, Turf-Pro, and Lindsey Brown, Experian, were honored as the top ambassadors for the program.
The banquet was then "interrupted" by Les Baker of Bekaert, who began "questioning" Fry about the highly successful November 2013 recruitment drive, which nearly doubled the Chamber's membership base. Fry attributed the hard work to the 163 volunteers who took part in the drive, giving special recognition to leaders Lisa Huckelbury and Jim Petty. The "Blues Brothers," portrayed by Lance Lanier and Joe Ryan of Citizens Bank & Trust, then presented Huckelbury and Petty with custom fedoras honoring them as the "Godmudda" and "Godfather" of the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce.
In concluding the evening, Petty returned to the stage to announce the winner of the 2014 Iverson Riggs Memorial Award. The award honors an individual who has made exemplary contributions of time, talent or resources to the Van Buren community. Citing qualities such as humble, servant, and leader, among many others, Petty announced that Cindy Faldon, Executive Director of the Boys Girls of Van Buren was this year's recipient.
"There is no one more committed to our children than Cindy Faldon," said Petty. "A recent survey showed that 57% of Boys and Girls Club alumni nationally say that the Club literally saved their life. Cindy is saving lives every day and we will never know the full impact that she has had on these kids and this community."
Faldon served in various roles at the Club for 11 years prior to assuming the directorship in 2010. During her tenure, the Club has more than doubled its average daily attendance in the afterschool and summer programs, and has seen the implementation of several character building curriculums, including SMART Girls and Passport to Manhood. In 2013, the organization completed a half-million dollar renovation and expansion of its building, adding more than 5,000 square feet of classroom, office and kitchen space to the Club. Faldon helped secure the funds for the renovation through private donations and a United Way Community Outreach Grant.
"She has been a steady rock for the Club and the kids we serve for many, many years and has a real heart for seeing them become confident, productive citizens," said Petty in his recommendation letter to the Chamber. "You need only see the response of the kids why they see her coming to know how they feel about her."
Faldon was presented with a plaque by the Chamber of Commerce and given a standing ovation by the crowd.
"You all make it possible for us to do what we do," said a tearful Faldon. "I simply go to work and love on these great kids every day. Thank you for this and for all that you do."