On Wednesday, the Kenai Chamber of Commerce held its annual community awards ceremony at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center to honor businesses and individuals on the Kenai Peninsula who have made a positive impact on the community. The public had the opportunity to nominate their friends and family for seven different awards, each with its own criteria. Winners were chosen by a nomination committee from the Kenai chamber and given commemorative plaques. The awards were presented by Chamber Vice Chairman Al Hull and Chamber Secretary Penny Furnish.
Before handing out the awards, Hull took a moment to recognize outgoing Chamber Chairman of the Board Karl Heinz for his service. Heinz served on the board as treasurer for two years and chairman for one year, and is now stepping down to focus on his family and his career at First National Bank Alaska.
“Carl did an outstanding job in the time that he was with us, and we appreciate everything he did,” Hull said.
Kenai Young Professional Entrepreneur of the Year — Brandon Miller, Iron Asylum Gym
The Young Professional Entrepreneur of the Year award is given to a young person on the peninsula who has created a successful business while making a positive impact on the Kenai community. This year the award was presented to Brandon Miller, the owner of the Iron Asylum Gym in Soldotna. Miller was born and raised in Kenai and served five years in the Army with the 10th Mountain Division. Miller was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan before he returned to Kenai and joined the Alaska National Guard. In June of 2017, Miller opened his gym in Soldotna with the goal of providing himself and those like him — police, veterans and “people that have been through some rough stuff and don’t really fit in other places,” in his own words — a place to feel comfortable while working out. In just two years, membership at Miller’s gym has grown to more than 200 people.
“He is a leader who inspires people that want to work hard and be their best self,” Furnish said while presenting the award to Miller.
Community Service Award — Jenny Neyman, KDLL Radio
The Community Service Award is given to individuals who consistently donate time and effort to the community. This year the chamber recognized Jenny Neyman, general manager of KDLL Public Radio, for covering the news on the peninsula for the last 20 years — first as a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion, then as editor and publisher of her own paper, The Redoubt Reporter, and now as general manager of local radio station KDLL.
“She has worked tirelessly to tell the stories of this community and its people,” Hull said. “The important ones, the funny ones, the sad ones … whether she is covering public meetings or skiing giant, dangerous glaciers, she gives her heart and soul and she gives her very best.”
Neyman said after receiving the award that it was a little strange to be onstage rather than in her usual role of covering events such as this one.
“Seeing and hearing the caliber of people that this community chooses to award, it’s very humbling to be up here getting one of these myself,” Neyman said. “Although, you get trapped on one glacier and somehow that’s in your bio for the rest of your life!”
Volunteer of the Year — Steve Toth
Similar to the Community Service Award, the Volunteer of the Year award is chosen for consistently volunteering time and effort for events sponsored by the Kenai chamber and other organizations. This year the chamber recognized Steve Toth for his volunteer work at the Saturday Market for the past 14 years. Every spring, Toth repairs the signs for the market and gets them in good condition. Every week during market season he places and takes down all the signs around town and is the first one at the market on Saturday to put out trash cans and guide vendors to their spots.
“Steve’s helping hand has not gone unnoticed, and he has been greatly appreciated over the years,” Furnish said.
“I don’t know what to say, I never expected it,” Toth said, keeping his acceptance speech short. “I’ve always been willing to help wherever I can, and I’ll keep helping whenever I can. Thank you.”
Small Business of the Year Award — The Upper Deck
The Small Business of the Year Award is given to a small business that consistently stays active and contributes to the wellness of the community. This year the award was given to the Upper Deck Lounge in the Kenai Airport. Hull said while presenting the award that The Upper Deck and its owners have been big supporters of the Kenai Brown Bears hockey team, regularly opening their doors after-hours to broadcast the hockey games for fans and “offer libations to the masses.”
“The owners have a heart as big as the blue sky looking out their windows,” Hull said.
Business/Organization of the Year Award and Lifetime Achievement Award — Alyeska Sales & Service
This award is given to larger businesses and organizations who also consistently have a positive impact on the community. This year local tire shop Alyeska Sales & Service was recognized for being a staple of Kenai going all the way to 1978 when owner Jerry Wortham ran a used car dealership with former Borough Mayor George Navarre. Alyeska now has eight locations in Alaska, including two in Anchorage. The Worthams have made their home in Kenai, have won national awards and been recognized as one of the largest family-owned tire businesses in the country. For their 40 years of service to the community, the Wortham family was also chosen to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I am very humbled today to get this award,” Wortham said. “And I’m not the only one that deserves this. I’ve got some good, dedicated employees, and I couldn’t have done any of this without them, so I think they’re the ones that need the award rather than me.”
Log Cabin Award — Penny Furnish, Kenai Chamber of Commerce
This award is based on the unwritten rule in Alaska that a cabin in the wilderness is a refuge to all weary travelers, and anyone using a cabin has a moral obligation to leave it better than they found it. With this in mind, the award is presented to a person who has lived in Kenai for the past 10 years and has provided something special to the community — leaving it better than they found it. This year the chamber’s own Penny Furnish received the award, much to her own surprise, for her contributions to the chamber and the Kenai Peninsula Realtor’s Association, as well as for volunteering at Relay for Life and Twin City Raceway for the past 14 years.
“I don’t do any of this for recognition, I just do it because I love to volunteer,” Furnish said. “So whoever nominated me for this, thank you. I really appreciate it.”
Pioneer Award — Dr Dennis Swarner
Finally, the Pioneer Award is given to someone who has been on the Kenai Peninsula for at least 25 years and has been instrumental in the development of the community during that time. This year, Dr. Dennis Swarner was given the pioneer award for his long track record of service to the peninsula, starting with opening the Kenai Vision Center in 1975. Swarner has also been a member of the Kenai Lions Club since 1978, has served on the Alaska Optometry Board, has coached for various youth sports over the years and has played a pivotal role in organizing the annual Kenai Lions Rubber Duck Race.
“If it was up to me, I’d like to be the Young Professional of the Year,” Swarner said jokingly. “But seriously, this is just one great community. I’ve got 44 years here, almost, and I’m loving every minute of it.”