HAMLET — The local business community gathered Tuesday evening at Cole Auditorium to celebrate their own at the Richmond County Chamber of Commerce’s annual Gala and Awards Celebration.
It was the first major event for new Chamber President Kristi Richardson King, who was hired to head the organization in January following the resignation of longtime leader Emily Tucker.
King said that the Chamber added 27 new members within the past year as the COVID pandemic wanes, and has increased membership by half of that in the first quarter of this year.
“The Chamber is working to capitalize on the existing success of last year, but also to work for new and existing strategic marketing opportunities …,” King said. “We want to reach out to our membership and decide ‘What do you want?’
“We realize that one size doesn’t fit all in businesses,” King continued. “People are what make the business and we need to find out what exactly you want (from the Chamber).”
In addition to providing tickets to events, King said the Chamber has revamped its membership structure and is also helping out businesses with social media marketing.
She said one of the purposes of the gala was for businesses to network with each other.
“We’re here so you can put your business next to the other person’s business and maybe help one another,” King said. “There are businesses in Richmond County that don’t even know other businesses exist. It’s our job to be the hub to make sure that doesn’t happen and see how we can help one another grow — and grow Richmond County.”
The first award to be presented was the Richmond County Chamber of Commerce Scholarship.
The winner, Felicia Graham of Raeford, wasn’t able to attend, but Dr. Hal Shuler, associate vice president of Development at Richmond Community College, read aloud a ‘Thank You’ note from the recipient.
“With everything going on, I was really trying to figure out how I would get my schooling paid for while dealing with all the complications of COVID-19,” wrote Graham, a part-time hair stylist with a daughter in college. “Soon I’ll be licensed to practice as a nurse and not only will that fulfill my dream, it will also be the way to financial freedom.”
Graham added that the scholarship takes a financial burden “off of my plate,” so she can focus on her studies.
“I will strive above excellence to ensure that your giving is not in vain.”
Elizabeth Rizzo, program coordinator for the Richmond County Partnership for Children, was named the Chamber’s Volunteer of the Year.
King said a few words used to describe Rizzo were: unwavering compassion; strong work ethic; and make-it-work grit.
When King first came on board, she said she kept hearing Rizzo’s name as a dedicated worker. When she first saw Rizzo at a Chamber event, King said she knew who Rizzo was before being introduced due to the descriptions of others.
“Not only is the Chamber lucky to have her, but so is the community,” King said of Rizzo, who is a Chamber ambassador and chairs the Richmond Young Professionals group.
Sheriff Mark Gulledge presented the Distinguished Leader Award — named in honor of his predecessor, the late Sheriff James E. Clemmons Jr. — to John Jackson, who retired last month after 23 years in administration with FirstHealth of the Carolinas.
During the introduction, Gulledge said Jackson shares some of the same traits and qualities with Clemmons, naming off several previous board memberships and accolades.
“His commitment to the healthcare industry has been second to none,” Gulledge said.
Jackson said it was an honor to receive the award named after “Clem”: “What a great man. We all miss him.”
“Richmond County has been too good to me,” said the Pennsylvania native. “I could never give back as much as I’ve gotten from this community.”
The final honor of the night, the Chamber’s Award of Excellence, was bestowed posthumously to the late Billy Weeks of Rockingham Dragway, who passed away last month.
Brian Baucom, chairman of the Chamber’s Board of Directors, said the award was designed to be given to a member or business that demonstrates consistent contributions to the Chamber and embodies the spirit of giving through time and resources to the Chamber, the county and overall community.
Baucom said Weeks has “tirelessly given to all three, mostly without having to be asked.”
The award was accepted on Weeks’ behalf by Dragway owner Steve Earwood.
“Quite frankly, Billy would be embarrassed by this because he truly was in the background,” Earwood said. “The nine years he was with me, he did everything … Running Rockingham Dragway is like running a small city, and Billy took care of all the details.
Earwood added that Weeks would be proud of the Dragway getting the recognition because it consistently brings tens of thousands of visitors to the county with its constant events.
“Billy was the most dedicated employee I ever had … he never once said an unkind word, he never once got an attitude — he just got the job done,” Earwood said, adding that he has filled the void with two full-time and three part-time employees.
Other Chamber board members for this year are: Dr. Katrina Chance of the Partnership for Children, serving as vice chair; Ray Herndon of the law firm Williams, Deane and Herndon; Cathy Page of Pee Dee Electric; Adam Hawks of Hawks Builders; Bill Patterson of Cascades Tissue Group; Ed Cox of Burlington Industries; Scotty Baldwin of Iron Horse Auction; Justin Dawkins of von Drehle; Christian Liles of Farm Bureau; Kristina Leyden of Richmond County Hospice; Mechelle Preslar of Hamlet Depot and Museums; Chuck Cobb of Cobb Investigative Services; Justin Jones of Rockingham Speedway; Dr. Dale McInnis of Richmond Community College; Dr. Jeff Maples of Richmond County Schools; Martie Butler of Richmond County Economic Development; and Meghann Lambeth of Richmond County Tourism Development.
The meal was provided by Buie’s Cotton Gin Restaurant and Catering and musical entertainment by Nikki Fletcher and Chuck Smith.