The Soldotna Chamber of Commerce took a break from its typical luncheon presentations this week to recognize local businesses and community members for their achievements.
The chamber’s 61st annual Awards Luncheon took place at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Wednesday. The awards were presented by incoming Chamber President Pamela Parker.
“On behalf of the Soldotna Chamber I would like to thank you for sharing in this celebration of a few of the people that make Soldotna the great place it is,” Parker said during the awards ceremony.
Before giving out individual awards, the chamber recognized its community sponsors at all levels, which range from silver to diamond depending on the amount of cash and in-kind donations given.
“These sponsors are instrumental in making our organization successful,” Parker said. “From $19,000 annually in scholarships, to events such as Peninsula Winter Games, the Frozen River Fest, Progress Days and of course Music in the Park, our sponsors let us do our job for all of you.”
Honorary Lifetime Soldotna Chamber Membership — Dan and Kathy Gensel
“The Honorary Lifetime Membership is not an award that we hand out lightly or even every year,” Parker said. “It is only awarded when the chamber board sees fit to honor a long-time member of the chamber family.”
Dan and Kathy Gensel have been members of the Soldotna Chamber since 1999 and were recognized for their years of volunteer efforts and their contributions to local sports and youth activities.
“It’s interesting that this event is celebrating its 61st year, because in two months this is going to be my 63rd year here,” Dan Gensel said after receiving the award. “It’s great to be here and to look out over a group of people that I consider my friends.”
Commitment to Customer Service Award — Peninsula Community Health Services of Alaska
“As care providers, this organization serves people who are often at the most vulnerable times in their lives,” Parker said. “Their mission is to strengthen our community by providing accessible and affordable health care.”
PCHS served 5,610 patients in three locations on the peninsula in 2018, for a total of 31,935 medical, behavioral health and dental visits. PCHS also offers discounts on a sliding fee scale to patients who are underinsured or uninsured.
“I’ve been here since May, and I’ve loved it the entire time,” Ben Wright, CEO of PCHS said. “The best part of it is getting to know the people here. It’s just a really great group of people.”
Commitment to Youth Award — Linda Hutchings
“The future of our community will be shaped not only by today’s leaders, but by the young people who will become our leaders,” Parker said. “Our Commitment to Youth award is given each year to someone who constantly volunteers time and is active in youth activities or concern for our kids.”
Hutchings helped found the Kenai Peninsula Community Care Center in 1973, which provides long-term residential care for at-risk youth. Hutchings also serves on the Soldotna Parks & Recreation Board and is the owner of Hutchings Auto Group and Auto Spa.
“Shannon said that this was going to be an award to present to Parks and Rec for all their hard work, so this speech that I wrote up won’t work,” Hutchings said. “I do want to say a special, special thank you to this whole community. My parents were very active in the community, and the one thing they always taught us was that somebody has got to step up … You never know what small little thing will impact somebody else’s life.”
Excellence in Profession Award – Paul Wright
“Known by many as ‘The Sound Guy,’ Paul’s company, Bassline Sound, has become a pillar of community events on the Kenai,” Parker said. “Over the past five years, he has worked more than 80 events for the Soldotna Chamber alone … With so much on his plate, he continues to meet and exceed expectations without fail.”
Wright is a musician and sound engineer who moved to Alaska at 12 years old and has toured with artists including Pam Tillis, Eddie Money and Toby Keith. Wright also played bass guitar in his own band, Lynx, and worked in the Kenai Peninsula School District for more than 20 years.
“Well, I don’t know about excellence, but I sure do appreciate this,” Wright said. “I think I liked it better when people didn’t care about what I was doing. Thank you very much, I appreciate being recognized.”
Pioneer Award — Kearlee Wright
“Soldotna’s early settlers were thoughtful and driven,” chamber board member Chuck Winters said while presenting the award. “Today’s recipient is one of those key early settlers.”
Wright moved to Alaska in 1950 and has served on the Soldotna City Council and as Soldotna Mayor. Wright served as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and came back to Soldotna to help found the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce in 1959, as well as the Soldotna Progress Days Parade in 1961. At 87, Wright currently owns the Best Western King Salmon Motel and King Salmon Restaurant in Soldotna and continues to stay active in his church and the community.
“I want you to know that Soldotna has always been a great place,” Wright said. “Yes, I voted for statehood. I homesteaded. I’ve done it all. I love Soldotna, and I love all of you, even if I don’t know you.”
President’s Award — The City of Soldotna
“The President’s Award is given at the discretion of the President of the Soldotna Chamber to an individual or group that has made a positive contribution to the chamber, community and our area’s businesses,” Parker said. “We attribute a great deal of our success to the City of Soldotna and all the assistance they graciously provide to make our community the best it can be.”
“It’s times like this that we really wish we had the mayor with us to accept this award,” Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen said. “We do have the most phenomenal staff … they just do whatever needs to be done every day to make the city a little bit better. I think we’re really privileged to be able to do that. Thank you so much.”
Volunteer of the Year — Terri Burdick
“Volunteers are the cornerstone of great organizations and are vital to raising awareness in the communities in which they live and work,” Parker said. “Each year, the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce honors a person or organization that volunteers their time, talents and resources in support of others in Greater Soldotna.”
Burdick has lived in Soldotna since the 1970s and has committed to regularly volunteering since the mid 1980s by contributing to the Soldotna Community Schools Program with arts and crafts and aerobics classes. Burdick also helped the Summer Reading Program at the Soldotna Library by writing and crafting puppet shows. Today, Burdick volunteers with the chamber in various ways, including playing the role of Lemon Head during Soldotna’s Lemonade Day.
“Thank you for this honor, and is there anything I can help with?” Burdick said.
Small Business of the Year — Annette Villa, Soldotna Wednesday Market
“This year’s Small Business of the Year recipient has been a true catalyst for growth in our community,” Parker said. “Only open one day a week, during one season of the year, this small business defies the odds and sees thousands of patrons during its annual operation.”
Villa started the Wednesday Market in the summer of 2007 and continues to run it while being a mother of nine and the owner of other small businesses in the community. The Wednesday Market is open every week during the summer at Soldotna Creek Park and has provided an opportunity for local farmers, artisans and food vendors to sell their wares and grow their businesses.
“This is very emotional for me because three years ago I was very sick and didn’t know if I would be here today or be able to do the market,” Villa said. “So being able to do the market and seeing the success and the beauty of it is very special to me … and I can’t get away without thanking the Lord for me being here because without him I wouldn’t even be here. Thank you everyone for coming.”
Business of the Year — Peninsula Pumping
“This company services everything from the tourism industry to the oil fields, commercial fishing to canneries, small residences and huge complexes, and they do it all over the Kenai Peninsula,” Parker said.
Sean Cude, owner of Peninsula Pumping, began his business with just two trucks and no employees. Now Cude employs 10 people and has an inventory of 500 port-a-potties, six septic trucks and four portable toilet trucks. Peninsula Pumping sponsors local programs including the Kenai Kennel Club, the Girl Scouts, CPH Safe Kids Programs and Kenai Little League.
“Just want to thank the chamber, this is an amazing award,” Cude said. “We really do strive hard to do good as a company and give back to the community as much as possible, and I just can’t thank everybody enough.”
Person of the Year — Brenda Ahlberg
“When considering nominees for this award, the committee looks at the individual’s entire history in our community,” Parker said. “But sometimes a person has made such an incredible impact in a single year there is no question that they deserve this recognition. That is the case with our 2019 Person of the Year.”
Ahlberg is the community and fiscal projects manager for the Borough’s Office of Emergency Management and this summer served as public information officer during the Swan Lake Fire. Ahlberg was also the architect of the OEM blog, a website that provides up-to-date information on fire activity and other disasters on the peninsula.
“I’m used to being the one behind the scenes, and greatly appreciate the fact that I can be a public servant to our residents,” Ahlberg said. “In the time of disasters or any other kind of crises we do a pretty good job of helping each other out. And we should all be proud of that.”