BENTON Ready to begin a new year, business leaders and others gathered Jan. 11 for the Benton Area Chamber of Commerce First Thursday Lunch and Awards Presentation at the Benton Event Center. Farmers Bank and Trust sponsored the event for the second year in a row, and Gina’s Catering again provided a pasta lunch.
Jeff Richardson, incoming chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, presided over the event. Richardson, who is senior vice president at Bank of the Ozarks, introduced Leigha Jones, 2017 board chairwoman, and thanked her for her leadership.
Richardson told the audience of more than 200 people that under Jones’ leadership, the chamber “awarded more scholarships than ever to Benton, Bauxite, Harmony Grove, Glen Rose and Sheridan graduating seniors.
“Also under her leadership, the chamber added a bingo event and focused on adding value to membership with the new business video library on topics such as marketing, taxes, social media, human resources and sales,” Richardson said. “Members have access to more than 600 videos to help their businesses; access is included in membership dues with no additional fee.”
Richardson introduced the retiring board members — Dee Everett with Everett Buick GMC; Lisa Gattis with the Benton School District; Cheryl Cook with Landers of Saline County; and Paul White with the Law Office of Paul D. White. Richardson also mentioned the late Lisa Presnall, who worked with the Arkansas Health Center before her death in November.
Richardson and Jones presented several special awards, including the following:
• The Ambassador of the Year Award went to Valeree MacEntee with the Ray Baggett Agency, Farmers Insurance.
“This is the second year in a row that Valeree has won this award,” Richardson said. “Up to 25 people serve as ambassadors and represent the chamber at various events. Valeree is one of the main faces of the chamber. She still has never met a stranger. She is loyal, trustworthy … the kind of person you want as a friend or an employee.”
Richardson said the Ambassador of the Year Award is based on a point system, with ambassadors receiving points for each chamber event they attend.
• The Entrepreneurship Award was given to Brooke Plack, owner of Empire Cheerleading and Connect Academy for Children.
Richardson told those in the audience the winner of this award “is an entrepreneur in every sense of the word.
“She started her current business in her garage in order to make a little vacation money …,” he said. “The demand and the number of students increased, and she moved the business to a commercial building and opened Empire Cheerleading in March 2014,” Richardson said. “The business very quickly outgrew this location and has now moved to an 18,000-square-foot facility. …
“She identified another need in our community with parents who desperately needed more flexible child care, and in the spring of 2017, she launched Connect, which offers flexible after-school care, and mother’s day out and summer care programs,” he said. “She is truly an inspiration to this community and believes in putting all of these kids first above all else.”
• The Volunteer of the Year is Mark Fikes with KFC and Rib Crib.
“Our Volunteer of the Year has been around our city for most of his life,” Richardson said. “He graduated from Benton High School, attended Ouachita [Baptist University in Arkadelphia] and then returned home to work.
“His family owned a family business, and he began working there (KFC) when he was 14,” Richardson said. “He now owns that business and is an investor and/or part owner in several other businesses.”
Richardson said Fikes “does all he can to help out the community by being a strong volunteer.
“He is known to help out groups like the [Benton] Police and Fire departments,” Richardson said. “He also has served on several committees. One of these is the Benton Advertising and Promotion Commission, where he has served as chairman for five years. He takes time out of his work schedule to serve the community.”
Fikes was unable to attend the luncheon. His daughter, Carolyn Moody, accepted the award for him. She now manages the KFC that Fikes’ dad started and that Fikes has worked in since he was 14.
• The Then, Now and Toward the Future Award went to Brad Jordan, director of economic development with the city of Benton.
“This is a new award,” Richardson said. “The recipient loves the past and is interested in the future of his community.
“His love of history and Benton started when he was 10 months old and his father taught him the Preamble to the Constitution,” Richardson said. “That’s how he learned to talk.”
Jordan is past chairman of the Benton Historical District and liaison between the city of Benton and the Benton Historical District Commission. He is the curator for the Museum of Discovery, a former assistant director of Main Street Arkansas and a former preservation coordinator of the Capital Zoning Commission. He also works with Benton’s Downtown Merchants Association. His wife, Lindsay Jordan, is executive director of the Gann Museum.
• The Citizen of the Year title was given to Dorcas Holicer.
“Our Citizen of the Year is a well-known individual in our community,” Richardson said. “I am sure those of you who graduated from Benton High School remember the lovely lady who taught western civilization and psychology.
“Not only did she teach, but she has owned several businesses in our community,” Richardson said. “She and her husband owned and operated a large sawmill. She owned and operated a floral shop.”
Richardson said Holicer “probably has been in most of the organizations in our city and on every committee that ever existed.
“She served many years on the board of directors of the Benton Area Chamber of Commerce and served as president in 1984,” he said. “She is also known for overseeing the Gann Museum. Still today, she is actively involved in the museum.”
• The Legacy Award went to Dr. Bill Simmons.
Richardson said Simmons opened Simmons Eye Care in 1962. Two of his sons and one of his granddaughters, along with her husband, are in practice with him, and Simmons’ grandson has also decided to enter the same profession. Simmons retired in 2006, at age 76.
Simmons was instrumental in getting a women’s church softball league started in the community. He served as song director in the Young Married Sunday School Department at First Baptist Church and currently leads the singing in the Senior Adult Sunday School Department and is an active member in the Sanctuary Choir. He also served on the Benton Parks Commission. He now volunteers at Saline Memorial Hospital and the Christian Community Care Clinic.
• The Community Spirit Award was given to the Benton Police Department.
Richardson said the Police Department is active in the community and strives to build relationships with citizens. Among the department’s community-minded programs are Shop with Our Cops, the Law Enforcement Torch Run and Tip-A-Cop events to benefit Special Olympics Arkansas, the Citizens Police Academy, the National Night Out event, the Ralph Bunche Back to School picnic, the summer kickball tournament, Spook City and the Benton Business Watch Party.
Richardson said he looks forward to serving as chairman of the chamber’s board of directors in 2018.
He introduced the other board officers: Steve Brown, vice chairman, who is with the Alcoa Community Federal Credit Union; Rick Bellinger, secretary, Riverside Grocery and Catering; Jordan Woolbright, treasurer, Jordan C. Woolbright, CPA, PA; and Jones, past chairman.
Richardson also introduced other board members. In addition to MacEntee, they are Mitchell Bolding, Simmons Bank; Laryssa Calley, Shelter Insurance; Karen Carter, Roller-Ballard Funeral Home; Leeanne Crowson, Natural State Drug and Alcohol Testing; Kelly Freudensprung, The Saline Courier; Toby Hirscheider, Carson Physical Therapy; Brent Jones, Edward Jones (financial advisors); Teresa Middlebrooks, Middlebrooks Electric; Justin McCauley, McCauley Services; Doug Robinson, Baxley-Penfield-Moudy Realtors; Chris Rollins, Rollins Performance Group; and Lisa Roth, First Security Bank.
Richardson said the chamber has several big events planned for the first quarter of 2018.
“Our annual chamber banquet will be March 13,” Richardson said. “Author Mitch Albom is the speaker.
“Tables are selling quickly,” he said. “Tables for 10 are $750, and individual tickets are $80.”
Additional upcoming events include the First Thursday Lunch on Feb. 1 at The Enclave Gallery at White Furniture, with Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, as guest speaker, and bingo on Feb. 8 at the Benton Event Center, with advance tickets on sale for $20 by contacting the chamber office or $25 at the door.
“As chairman of the board this year, I want to make sure we do what is best for all of our businesses,” Richardson said. “If at any time, you want to talk, contact me, the chamber office or any of the board members. We want to do everything we can for you.”