FAIRHOPE — The South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce celebrated its successes and its challenges at its 78th-annual gala held Friday, Jan. 28, at Oak Hollow Farm in Fairhope.
After serving two years as board chairwoman, Charlene Haber of Wolf Bay Restaurants, turned over the ceremonial gavel Friday to Chad Watkins of WAS Design, Landscape Architects.
"In a lot of ways these last two years have been the longest and in a lot of ways it has been the shortest," she said. "I was able to witness a community bond together, hand in hand, not only to survive, but two empower and inspire one another to do the same."
During that time, Haber said, she witnessed the community come together to help each other.
"I watched silent heroes come to the rescue to complete strangers and expect nothing in return," she said. "I've seen groups and businesses come together, put aside traditional differences to help each other, because under the circumstances, all of our priorities became aligned due to the underlying need to save our industry, our workforce."
After most of the chamber's events were canceled in 2020, all of the chamber board members agreed to serve again in 2021 and led the way to successful events such as the Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival, which received the Event of the Year Award from the State of Alabama Tourism Department after moving to OWA.
The Chamber also had success with its annual BBQ & Blues event and this year broke the record for most new members in one year since 2006 with 174.
The South Baldwin Chamber Foundation also hosted its inaugural golf tournament, Golf For Education. Proceeds from Friday night's silent auction and live auction with Baldwin County Sheriff Hoss Mack benefited the foundation, which supports 13 schools in the Foley/Elberta area through programs and grants.
"Baldwin County is changing, but it will be growth and change for the good," Mack said. "I'm absolutely convinced that one of the ways that we change and grow for the good is through our chambers of commerce. They connect people who are like-minded, people that want to come together for community."
Following the live auction, the chamber president/CEO introduced staff and board members, followed by an invocation and thanks from presenting sponsors Dr. Brett Taylor and Dr. Nathan Luoma of One Life Chiropractic.
Following her remarks, Haber turned the podium over to Watkins as incoming chairman.
After polling those present on some of the challenges that have been faced over the last two years, Watkins said he could see benefit coming from the chaos.
"We experienced a lot of recent broad-reaching disorder, and so I'm looking forward to collective gain," he said. "New efficiency from some of that short-staffedness, new critical thinking skills from having to work for two or three at a time. I look forward to that, and saying thank you to these experiences, I look forward to using those skills with all of you this year and beyond."
Awards were then presented by Haber and Chamber President/CEO Donna Watts, Volunteer of the Year, Belinda Tucker; Small Business of the Year, Homecare Companions and owner Sue Alford; and Diplomat of the Year, Summer Tankersley with Gulf Coast Therapy.
Emotions ran high as Margaret Roley with South Baldwin Regional Medical Center was presented with the Healthcare Hero Awards.
Roley began working at the hospital in 2005 and served for several years as the chief nursing officer. She currently serves the hospital as interim CEO.
"(She led the) nursing staff through the trials of the pandemic with perseverance and fortitude," Haber said.
Watts presented Roley with a packet of letters from municipalities and businesses all across the county nominating her for the award, reading one of the letters from Mayor Ralph Hellmich of the city of Foley.
"On behalf of the citizens of Foley, the city council and myself, I would like to express a heartfelt thanks for the dedication and the service that she has demonstrated during the past two years of COVID-19 and this worldwide pandemic," the letter read. "She worked tirelessly to provide not only the leadership, but frontline duties to save countless lives by reaching out to provide vaccinations across our city."
Roley credited her team and the board of trustees at SBRMC in accepting the award.
"Those words are so kind, but it's the team that surrounds you," she said, "and you're only as good as the people that you work with. Our team's here tonight, and our Board of Trustees, and that's what enables us to provide that type of healthcare. And when I look around the room, it is really easy to take care of you guys because our community is a really special place, and I just feel privileged to be here."
Former Foley Mayor John Koniar was presented with the Distinguished Public Service Award, serving on the Foley City Council from 1980 to 2006, also serving as mayor pro-tem from 1996 to 2006.
He was appointed to finish the term of Mayor Tim Russell in 2006 and went on to be elected three more times.
"I appreciate the recognition," Koniar said. "Foley's been a wonderful experience for me, and my family and we love it. The whole area has been wonderful."
The Chamber also presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to Herb Malone, retired CEO of Gulf Shores Orange Beach Tourism.
"He helped begin the GSOBT, a vision and an operation of one of the best marketing operations in the country," Haber said. "Millions come each year, they spend billions and provide vital funding for South Baldwin infrastructure, and funding for the marketing organization of Alabama's Gulf Coast."
The final award of the night, Woman of Influence, was presented to Jennie Campbell, who recently retired from Stewart Lodges of Steelwood.
Campbell has served on almost 50 chamber boards or other local communities, ranging from New Orleans to Mobile, including the South Baldwin Chamber.
She has worked in Baldwin County since 2003 and is active in organizations raising money for leukemia and multiple sclerosis research.
Campbell was not present to receive her award but presented a video message during Friday night's ceremony.
"I am honored and humbled by this award," she said. "Business is people, business is connections, business is relationships. I've been associated with this business since 2003, I've been touched by the warmth and the openness of this community. I could not have achieved what I have achieved without the support of my faith, my family and my business. It is the people in the south and at Stewart Lodges who have made me what I am."
In her closing remarks, Watts expressed her appreciation to the South Baldwin community and its leadership.
"Does it dawn on you, like it dawns on me, what a great community we have and what great leadership we have here in South Baldwin County?" she said. "We're here, as a community, to support each other, to lift one another up, to encourage each other, to give one another courage to keep going forward. We are a community, and we need to lift each other up, and listen, and give respect to other's feelings; we may not share them, but that doesn't mean we can't respect them and be helpful."