Pictured from left to right are Chris Roberts from WERT Radio, Van Wert County Foundation Executive Secretary Seth Baker, Founder/CEO of Small Nation Jason Duff of Bellefontaine, and Former Director/CEO of Greater Fort Wayne and President of PAGO Eric Doden. (DHI Media/Kirsten Barnhart)
Pictured from left to right are Chris Roberts from WERT Radio, Van Wert County Foundation Executive Secretary Seth Baker, Founder/CEO of Small Nation Jason Duff of Bellefontaine, and Former Director/CEO of Greater Fort Wayne and President of PAGO Eric Doden. (DHI Media/Kirsten Barnhart)

VAN WERT – The Van Wert Area Chamber of Commerce held their 98th annual Dinner and Awards Ceremony on Wednesday where local businesses and individuals were recognized for their commitment to Van Wert. Attendees also heard from a panel of leaders about why investing in the heart of the community is vital.

To begin the evening, Debby Compton, 2020 Chamber Board of Directors Chair, provided highlights of the past year.

In 2019, there were 18 ribbon cuttings. Ten new Leadership Van Wert graduates were honored, 35 new Chamber members were welcomed, and the Chamber hosted four lunch and learn and after-hour events. The Chamber held Leadercast Live, Biz Expo and Taste of Van Wert, the annual Golf Classic, and the Salute to Small Business Awards.

"We are grateful for your membership and your financial support," said Chamber CEO/President Mark Verville. "Thank you for trusting us with your ideas and allowing us to showcase you in our community and region. I say region because we connect with Chambers and similar partners at all points of the compass in our region, and when we do, we are representing you and Van Wert County."

One of the major awards of the evening was the Ray Miller Award. The Ray Miller Award is an award that recognizes a Van Wert County resident who has shown a strong commitment to the community through volunteer work, participation in community organizations including the Chamber, and outstanding service to the Van Wert area.

This year's award recipient was Mark White, President of Vancrest Health Care Center.

"Mark personifies the true meaning of a community champion and he has promoted the development of the very footprint of Van Wert through his extensive real estate and economic development efforts," said Pat Ryan, President of Citizen's National Bank. "Mark is highly aware of the needs of the community and has devoted his time and resources to the benefit of many."

White serves as a trustee for Ohio Northern University, Van Wert County Foundation, and the Business Development Corp. His past involvements include the Van Wert Chapter of the American Red Cross, City Councilman-at-Large/Council President, Van Wert National Bank Board of Directors, Van Wert Port Authority, and the Salvation Army Board.

White and his partners donated Hickory Sticks Golf Course to the YMCA and was part of the group who donated the Vancrest Care Center to Crestview Local Schools, where it will be utilized as a preschool/daycare.

"I can't imagine a place that would have offered me the varied opportunities that this community has, and for that, I feel truly blessed," said White. "And standing here tonight I can't help but be thankful for friends, partners, family friends, employees and great customers that make this possible for me. This award is for all of you."

The Crystal Image Award honors a Chamber Investor that has demonstrated leadership in the Van Wert Community by its many-faceted contributions. Those contributions include business responsibility, productivity, employee empowerment, and service to the community.

The Crystal Image Award recipient was the Van Wert Area Economic Development Corporation, which was formed in 2016 with a mission to promote and retain existing businesses, implement solutions to drive investment and facilitate the creation of new jobs in Van Wert County.

They serve as the grant administrator for Van Wert County and manage the Revolving Loan Fund; since 2016, the fund size has increased by 45 percent and nearly $800,000 has been loaned to new and existing businesses.

The VWAEDC administers the Van Wert County Land Bank. Through a neighborhood improvement program, blighted structures are removed and the property is revitalized. They have acquired over 70 properties in Van Wert County which have been renovated, and lots have been sold to accommodate new residential construction and to create community parks and a bus stop for students.

Stacy Adam, Director of VWAEDC accepted the award and thanked the City and County for working together to make the achievements of VWAEDC possible.

"When I think about this community, we have a clean, safe community, with low-cost of living. Thanks to a few, we now have a solution to affordable, available housing in Van Wert," said Adam. "We have extraordinary facilities for a community of our size and great schools. And don't forget, the commute time in Van Wert is good."

"You can not grow a community on your own; it takes everyone," added Adam. "The one thing we have in common is that we are committed to this community. We are not sitting back and crossing our fingers and hoping it gets better. We are not sitting back and waiting for some agency to come in and fix it for us. People in this community are taking action, they are rolling up their sleeves, they are investing in this community, and they are making Van Wert an even better place."

Several businesses were awarded the Golden Shovel Award, which is reserved for Chamber members who began or completed an addition, expansion, or major renovation in 2019. Those businesses were Adriel, Inc., Bee Gee Realty, Casey's General Store, CSL Contracting, Inc., GKN Freight Services, Inc., The Marsh Foundation, and Vancrest Home Health Care Center.

Several businesses were also awarded Milestone Awards celebrating special anniversaries marking at least 5 years of success and dedication to the Van Wert area. Those businesses include Tisha Fast State Farm - 5 years, Truly Divine Bread Company - 5 years, Van Wert Vision - 15 years, Brand It Marketing - 15 years, Van Wert County Regional Airport - 100 years, Citizen's National Bank - 100 years, Van Wert Federal Bank - 130 years, Van Wert Fire Department - 150 years, and The Times Bulletin - 175 years.

Also awarded was Michelle Gunter, 2019 Chair, who received the Distinguished Service Award for outstanding leadership as 2019 Chair of the Board of Directors.

The evening ended with a panel discussion lead by Chris Roberts from WERT Radio. Van Wert County Foundation Executive Secretary Seth Baker, Former Director/CEO of Greater Fort Wayne and President of PAGO Eric Doden, and Founder/CEO of Small Nation Jason Duff of Bellefontaine all spoke about the importance of investing in the heart of a community.

Recently, the Foundation announced a downtown revitalization venture to grow downtown Van Wert.

"As a Foundation, we give out grants and scholarships to the community," said Baker. "We started asking ourselves, 'Is there a way that we can make a deeper impact into the heart of the community?'"

Baker noted that through impact investments (formed through investments from Wall Street that are shifted into the heart of Van Wert) the Foundation is able to create a return on their vision to create a well resourced and thriving quality of life for the Van Wert Community.

The panel answered several questions through the evening and noted that through listening to the community and finding those willing to invest in downtown, it is possible to create a place where people thrive and have a positive quality of life.

The event took place at the Wassenberg Art Center and a meal was catered by Willow Bend Country Club. Premier Sponsors for the event were Van Wert Health and Central Insurance Companies.