Numerous ribbon cuttings for new businesses, a record $69,401 raised during Washington County Gives and 30 new members from Washington, Burt, Dodge and Douglas counties as well as Harrison County, Iowa, were part of a successful year for the Blair Area Chamber of Commerce, Executive Director Jordan Rishel said during the chamber and Gateway Development Corporation's joint banquet Friday at Cottonwood Cove Marina and RV Resort.
"It was quite a year, it felt like a roller coaster ride, " Rishel said. "The chamber had a great year, but I'm glad it's done, and 2020 is going to be even better."
Ahead for 2020 is a rebranding for the chamber. Rishel announced that the Blair Area Chamber of Commerce will now be called the Washington County Chamber of Commerce after support from members and a unanimous vote by the chamber's board of directors Friday.
"We really want to be inclusive of businesses from all over the county," Rishel said after the banquet. "We've had businesses from all over since I've been involved with the chamber, but we really just want to let people know that it's not just the Blair chamber, that we really do encompass the whole county, and we want to continue that growth."
The chamber also presented Arlington resident Micheal Dwyer with its 2019 Community Service award during the banquet. Dwyer was recognized for 30 years service as a firefighter and EMT with the Arlington Volunteer Fire Department and work with Region 5/6 Emergency Management, the Arlington School Board and the Arlington Planning Commission over many years. Arlington Village Board of Trustees Chairman Paul Krause also noted Dwyer's volunteerism with local churches, committees and groups.
"Winston Churchill said, 'We make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give.' Micheal Dwyer has a long history of giving to our community," Krause said. "Micheal Dwyer has been working hard at making a great life."
Dwyer said he was honored to accept the award on behalf of "hundreds and hundreds of other people" that he's served with and his wife, Gayle.
"This award can not just be mine. Gayle and I are partners in everything that we do, and she must share this with me," Dwyer said, inviting his wife to the podium. "I've served with some of the bravest, most talented, most dedicated men and women I have ever known … By their example, few if anything would be possible because of anything special that I did. All of these things have been possible because I happened to volunteer for something greater than myself."
Gateway Development Executive Director Mike Rooks said it has been a positive year for economic development in Washington County. Areas of positive growth, he noted, were Veramaris' grand opening at the bio-campus, housing development on the former Dana College campus, the completion of a retail trade study analysis and the completion of an updated hotel study.
The Blair City Council approved $400,000 in LB 840 funds for Sai Properties V Inc. of Omaha to build a Holiday Inn Express on Jan. 27, the first step needed in the process to build a new hotel.
"I'm having the time of my life doing this," said Rooks, who became Gateway's executive director in April. "We're moving in the right direction."
Rooks also presented former Blair Mayor Jim Realph with Gateway's 2019 Emmett Award. The award, named after Emmett Rogert — one of the founding members of Gateway Development — is given to an individual who “has shown exceptional values and principles necessary to build a progressive economic development partnership in Washington County.”
Realph was elected mayor in 2002 and served in the position for 16 years. Realph said one of his favorite parts of being mayor was economic development. He noted the opening of the Blair Public Library and Technology Center in 2017 as a bright spot, and he was mayor during the growth of the Cargill campus and infrastructure improvements across Blair.
"It's really good to have this award presented to me tonight in economic development because I've said that's the most fun part of being mayor," Realph said before noting several entities and other people's contributions to Blair's growth. "I was just a cheerleader out here."
Rishel said she was looking forward to continued growth for Blair and Washington County in 2020.
"Just as soon as we can get things going now to make things official," she said of the chamber's rebranding.
Chamber president Ryan Palmer said the chamber's name change reflects a want to be representative of all the communities in Washington County. He said that isn't only for membership, but for chamber programs and the chamber's board of directors. He said the board has had members from communities like Blair, Arlington and Fort Calhoun, and the chamber wants to continue to be representative of the county.
"We want to be representative of the communities we serve," he said. "We're always looking for people to help us grow business, but also just grow communities."