Chamber of Commerce 2019 award winners

The following community members were recognized for their contributions in 2019 (from left to right): Front row: Denise Conway, Sara Lynn Kerr, Karen Buchwald Wright, Kelly Brenneman, Heather Brayshaw. Back row: Erin Stevens, Dena Hess-McKinstry, Cindy Cunningham, David Stein, Korey Kidwell, Paul McNeal, Jeff Scott, Ronny Flynn, William Barth Burgett.

MOUNT VERNON – In her introduction on Friday night, Ariel Corporation president and CEO Karen Buchwald Wright was compared to one of Ohio’s most beloved heroes: Wilbur Wright.

Which, last names aside, might have been appropriate. After all, Buchwald Wright has helped Mount Vernon take flight in recent decades.

Buchwald Wright was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 Knox County Chamber of Commerce Awards Dinner, hosted by Kenyon College. She headlined a night that featured 11 award-winners and 30 nominees, as nearly 700 people filled the Kenyon Athletic Center to watch some of the county’s most influential businesses, organizations and volunteers gain recognition for their accomplishments.

It was the Chamber of Commerce’s 27th annual awards dinner, which began in 1992 as a way to connect, promote and celebrate local businesses. Chamber Executive Director Carol Grubaugh deemed this year’s event another success, given the spike in attendance – around 100 more tickets were sold this year – and the atmosphere during the two-hour ceremony.

“I think everything went so well, and there’s so much energy in the room,” said Grubaugh, who was honored Friday for 20 years of service with the Chamber. “Members tell us what a wonderful time they have and it just continues to grow, and we are just so excited to be with the community, honoring all of these nominees and presenting them.”

While the event is meant to honor achievements from the prior year, Grubaugh believes it also serves as inspiration for the year ahead.

“It’s good to celebrate because I feel enthusiasm is contagious,” she said. “It just makes us a better community.”

As Knox County heads into a new decade, Grubaugh said the area seems to be trending positively from a commerce perspective. Unemployment rates within the county rarely surpassed the state average in 2019, according to data from the Ohio Office of Workforce Development, and new businesses continue to crop up locally.

The Chamber added 45 new members last year, Grubaugh said, which is four more than the year before. It also held 36 ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

“I think things are going very positively,” Grubaugh said. “Yes, businesses close at times, and of course we lost Siemens – we hated to see that. But I like to see that there’s people not afraid to open a new business, and we’re continuing to see that – not only people coming into the Chamber to get information about how to start a business, but hearing about expansion like Ver-Mac is doing, which was recently promoted. So I think things are really very positive.”

The voting process for Friday night’s awards ceremony began in September, according to Bob Boss, the newly elected chairman of the Chamber’s board of trustees. Nominations were requested from all 400-plus member businesses and their associates for the night’s 11 awards.

Chamber ambassadors and board members then narrowed the nomination list down to three for each category, and those nominees were once again voted on by members. Each member business received one vote per category.

Here were the awards handed out on Friday night, in the order they were presented:


Judy Klavins Ambassador of the Year Award: Paul McNeal, Mount Vernon Nazarene University athletic department

This award goes to a person selected by Chamber staff based on their volunteerism, as well as their attendance at meetings and Chamber events throughout the year.

Kimberly Peck, the vice president of Killbuck Savings Bank, called McNeal “a true champion of the Chamber" during his introduction on Friday night.

McNeal attended nearly every ribbon cutting in 2019, and he also organized student volunteers to help the Chamber move from its old office on South Gay Street to its new office at the CA&C Depot last summer. McNeal created ‘Chamber Night’ at MVNU's Ariel Arena, which brought several community groups together to raise funds for Food For The Hungry during an MVNU basketball doubleheader.

“He is an outstanding Chamber ambassador and a champion for our community, and he excels at bringing people together,” Peck said.


Environmental Sustainability Award: Fredericktown Local Schools

Competing nominees: HopeNow Furniture Bank of Knox County, Replex Plastics

This award honors a Knox County business or organization that “has done most during the past year to introduce sustainable practices into its operations or to promote awareness of sustainable practices and encourage their use.”

Fredericktown Local Schools conducted a recycling project during the 2018-19 school year that surpassed expectations and resulted in four new benches for the school district.

School Resource Officer Ronny Flynn and the Fredericktown High School student council initiated a districtwide effort to donate recyclable items. The entire student body brought in used plastic caps, lids, bottles and containers, and the classroom with the most recyclables after the nine-week collection period won a pizza party.

The district’s initial goal was to collect 500 pounds of recyclable items; however, when Flynn and the student council went back to check, the donations amounted to 1,250 pounds.

Flynn then transported the recyclables to Green Tree Plastics in Indiana and exchanged them for four eight-foot benches, which are now located in front of the high school. The benches are made from the recyclable materials the students collected throughout the school year, each weighing 250 pounds. They not only represent a safe area where students and staff can rest, but also the impact of recycling.

Fredericktown Local Schools won the award over HopeNow Furniture Bank of Knox County, which distributed nearly 16 semi-truckloads of gently used furnishings and household goods to local families in need; and Replex Plastics, which participated in the Ohio Development Services Agency State Energy Efficiency Program for Manufacturers to cut down on energy usage during its manufacturing process.


Heart Award: Knox County Memorial Building

Competing nominees: Country Club Rehabilitation Campus, Knox County Commissioners

This award honors a Chamber member business that “achieves and maintains architectural design that compliments our community.”

The Knox County Memorial Building, located at 112 E. High St. in Mount Vernon, received substantial upgrades in 2019. The building gained an elevator with four levels of service; air conditioning; restroom accessibility upgrades; new paint; new dining furniture, including the ‘Made in America’ seating in Veterans Hall; new accessible service areas on each floor; commercial refrigeration and ice-making capabilities; new lounge furnishings; rugs, lamps, appointments and decór; new dishware, place setting and linens; new cabinetry, storage, appliances for rental and service areas; and state-of-the-art audio/visual equipment in the theater.

The building also received new digital control areas; newly constructed back-of-the-stage storage for the grand piano and set design; an orchestra pit cover to showcase musical groups; the cleaning, painting, and refinishing of the theater walls and stage floor; new signage and large-capacity banner display mechanisms; and the infamous ‘Poker Room’ was unearthed for small meetings.

Rental activity for the entire building increased 70 percent from 2017 to 2018, then 30 percent from 2018 to 2019, despite the theater being closed five months for renovations.

“Richard Cochran had a vision about six years ago, and there were many days where I looked up and said, ‘What did you get me into?’” said Sara Lynn Kerr, the building’s executive director, alluding to one of the facility’s original supporters. The Knox County Memorial Building now hosts live performances in its 1,000-seat theater, as well as recreational and educational activities in other rooms.

“It has been marvelous,” Kerr said while accepting the award. “We are very, very proud of this endeavor.”

The Knox County Memorial Building won the award over Country Club Rehabilitation Campus, which made campus-wide renovations totaling more than $3 million in 2019; and the Knox County Commissioners, who supported the transformation of the old Central School building into new space for the Board of Elections and Veterans Services Office. The county is also currently building a new maintenance facility at 118 E. High St., and it completed its Chestnut Street parking lot project in 2019.


Quality of Life Award: United Way of Knox County

Competing nominees: Knox Partnership for Arts & Culture, New Directions

This award is given to a non-profit Chamber member business “whose work has enriched the lives of Knox County.”

United Way of Knox County helped 650 elementary school students improve their physical fitness in 2019. Through its six-week ‘Crunch Out’ program, the organization taught area fourth graders how to use an exercise ball as a fitness tool during physical education class.

United Way also taught students about the importance of proper nutrition, making healthy eating choices, and daily participation in physical activity. Families were encouraged to practice United Way’s ‘5-2-1-0’ program and discover fun ways to get moving with their children.

According to United Way, approximately 30 percent of Knox County’s children are overweight or obese. By teaching students skills to get healthy and providing an opportunity for students to practice those skills, United Way helped make local families healthier in 2019.

“I stand here as a representative of every single person in this room. I am just a leader – you guys make this happen…” executive director Kelly Brenneman said while accepting the award. “I believe I have a wonderful staff. We work really, really hard. We, too, have a lot of fun, because it is fun to raise money to help people. We could not do it without you.”

United Way of Knox County won the award over Knox Partnership for Arts & Culture, which brought arts, entertainment and educational opportunities to the newly renovated Woodward Opera House; and New Directions, which worked with 1,800 area students to promote healthy, safe relationships.


Volunteer of the Year Award: Heather Brayshaw (First-Knox National Bank)

Competing nominees: Tonya Boucher (The Peoples Bank of Gambier), Rebekah Jenkins (First-Knox National Bank), Paul McNeal (MVNU athletics)

This award goes to an individual whose business has been a Chamber member for at least two years and who “consistently volunteers for both Chamber and community projects, and has contributed to a single, unique project in the county within the last two years.”

Brayshaw, the marketing director at First-Knox National Bank, played a crucial role in keeping the Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival alive last summer. When the news broke that longtime organizers Pat and Sandy Crow would be stepping down, Brayshaw got in touch with local leaders such as Joe Rinehart, Matt Starr, Kelly Brenneman and Lisa Lloyd to see how they could keep the tradition going.

In eight weeks, the group worked with the city to plan and execute the 2019 festival. Brayshaw played a major role in keeping downtown Mount Vernon’s 31-year tradition alive. She put together marketing materials by finding designers and promoting the event through social media and radio advertising. Brayshaw also worked to confirm vendors and sponsors for the August festival.

“We had a lot of fun putting together the festival and everything else we did last year. I’m honored to have the opportunity to be able to do those things, and I work for a company that allows me to, and I have people that I work with that were on-board with the time it took,” said Brayshaw, who was “shocked” to be nominated for the award.

“I’m just really glad to work in a community, such as ours, that supports those events, because so many of you in this room helped to make that happen as well.”

Brayshaw is also involved in Main Street Mount Vernon (board chair); Women United; Women of Wonder; Winter Sanctuary Homeless Shelter; The Salvation Army of Mount Vernon (board member); and LifePoint Church. She is a Connections Team member, a Nationwide Children’s Hospital diabetes peer mentor, and a Mount Vernon Rotary Club board member.


Investor in the Future Award: Knox Community Hospital

Competing nominees: Riverside Recovery Services, YMCA of Mount Vernon

This award is given to a Chamber member who "has demonstrated an investment in the future of Knox County and/or has spearheaded a significant contribution or investment in the youth of Knox County.”

Knox Community Hospital has increased its local employment by 25 percent over the last five years, going from 827 full-time equivalents in 2015 to 1,040 currently. The hospital has continued to invest in the community by offering a wide variety of new services, including bariatric medicine, home health services, endocrinology, gastroenterology, nephrology, neurology, ophthalmology, pediatric medicine, psychiatry, pulmonology and rheumatology.

Knox Community Hospital is also in the midst of building its new 85,000-square-foot Wright Family Medical Pavilion, which will offer expanded care for local residents. The hospital continues to invest millions of dollars each year in community benefit activities, including reduced-cost care, healthcare education and community fundraisers.

In an era where many other community hospitals have reduced services, KCH has seen tremendous growth and expansion, according to marketing director Jeff Scott.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the people that I work with…” Scott told the crowd Friday. “Knox Community Hospital is full of good people who try really hard every day because they love this community.

“Nobody wants to go see the doctor, nobody wants to go to the hospital – except for the birthing center, they want to get there. We get that. We know, and we don’t get everything right. But it is an organization that is dedicated to doing whatever it can to best serve the needs of this community.”

Knox Community Hospital won the award over Riverside Recovery Services, which added its sixth location in 2019; and the YMCA of Mount Vernon, which is currently undergoing its largest capital project in approximately 55 years, a $3.5 million renovation effort.


Women in Business Leadership Award: Denise Conway, Conway’s Eastside Pharmacy

Competing nominees: Lori Jones-Perkins (New Directions), Amy Smart (Riverside Recovery Services)

This award is given to a Chamber member who “serves as a role model encouraging women to achieve their full leadership potential.”

Conway recently bought out her business partners at Foster’s Eastside Pharmacy, which allowed her to rename the business 'Conway’s Eastside Pharmacy' and “take the pharmacy, and its staff, to newer levels of providing healthcare.”

The pharmacy opened its second location in 2019, expanding to Danville to help fill a healthcare gap on the county’s east side.

Conway partnered with the Knox County Health Center to establish low-cost medical, dental and mental healthcare in the same vicinity as the pharmacy, making it easy for Danville residents to obtain proper treatment.

“In a time where independent pharmacies are closing, we are creating collaborations and partnerships to strengthen healthcare in communities like Danville and be a role model for others to create these partnerships in their communities,” Conway said.

Conway, who owns Conway’s Pharmacies and also serves as a pharmacist, called winning the award “quite an honor.”

“I do not take this honor lightly in any way. It is my goal, my passion, my drive for life to inspire other women – just other people – to be leaders, to stand up. Stand up with integrity, the truth, compassion. I was born and raised in this community. Kevin (her husband) and I have come back to this community because it’s our compassion and our goal to leave the same marks that people left on our hearts, on other people’s hearts.

“To the other nominees, Amy and Lori: I look to you all as inspirations for me, too.”

Conway won the award over Jones-Perkins, who partnered with local law enforcement to establish the Lethality Assistance Program, which allows officers to better determine the danger of situations involving intimate partner violence; and Smart, who spearheaded Riverside Recovery Services’ expansion efforts and obtained licensure for the organization from the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services.


Entrepreneurial Spirit Award: Stein Hospitality Company

Competing nominees: Half Baked Café and Catering, The Makery: Makerspace and Yarn Shop

This award was added to the slate last year, Grubaugh said, as a way to recognize new businesses within the community. It is awarded to a business or individual who is a new Chamber member, has been in operation between six months and five years, and “displays a desire to contribute to the financial health and well-being of their community.”

Stein Hospitality Company comprises three downtown Mount Vernon businesses, all owned by local entrepreneur David Stein: The Joint, Dave’s Cosmic Subs, and Stein Brewing Company. Stein launched all three businesses in 2018, with 2019 being their first full year in operation. Each restaurant brings a different flavor to the city’s developing downtown corridor.

Last year, Stein Hospitality partnered with local universities and school districts to provide discounts for staff and students, while also offering catering services to teams for celebratory meals. Stein’s three businesses regularly hold raffles, contests and events, where a portion of the proceeds goes toward charitable causes.

Stein partnered with The Foundation for Knox Community Hospital last fall to host the first annual Kokosing River Brewfest, where proceeds went toward the hospital’s new Family Care Center. In total, Stein Hospitality Company helped raise over $40,000 for local organizations and charities in 2019.

“We want to thank the community for all the support we’ve had this past year,” communications director Dena Hess-McKinstry said. “We couldn’t do the things we do without the community involvement.”

Stein called the award an “absolute honor.”

“There’s no physical way I could pull off any of this without a great team behind me…” he told the crowd. “The biggest thing I can throw out there – of all the things we’ve done in our first year-plus, and I can’t wait to get to the second year here – look around. We support each other. If you’re thinking about buying a TV, make sure you check out Herald’s. If you’re thinking about going out to eat, think local first.

“The biggest thing I can preach and try to keep preaching is keep it in the community, because that’s what keeps things going for us.”

Stein Hospitality Company won the award over Half Baked Café and Catering, which opened in April and actively partners with other local organizations for event catering and campaign sponsorship; and The Makery: Markerspace and Yarn Shop, which was established in May 2018 and helps unite the community through creativity, while also sponsoring various projects and fundraisers.


Small Business of the Year Award: Kidwell & Cunningham

Competing nominees: Buckingham Electric LLC, The Peoples Bank of Gambier

This award is given to a Chamber member business with fewer than 50 employees that has been in operation for more than five years, and that “consistently contributes to both Chamber and community projects, has a reputation for integrity and fair business practice, and has demonstrated management or product innovation as well as successful solutions to business issues.”

Kidwell & Cunningham attorneys and staff members have consistently been involved in Chamber events over the years. Members of the law firm have served on the Chamber's board of directors, participated in Leadership Knox, sponsored Chamber events, and attended ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Kidwell & Cunningham, which handles real estate, estate planning, probate matters and small business matters, has invested over $22,000 in the community over the last two years. The firm has supported projects like the YMCA of Mount Vernon’s capital campaign, and also organizations like United Way of Knox County and Knox Community Hospital.

Korey Kidwell, who serves as a partner at the firm alongside Cindy Cunningham, seemed thrilled to receive the award on Friday night.

“It means a whole lot to us,” Kidwell said. “For years and years, our law firm has been part of this community, and we believe in serving our clients, and we believe that this is a recognition of us and the service that we do for all of them.

“It’s a recognition of our staff – they really make all this happen for us. I couldn’t be more pleased, on behalf of myself, Cindy, and Dick Murray, Bob Rauzi. I’m just very pleased.”

Cunningham noted that she and Kidwell are both from Knox County, which has compelled them to give back to the community.

“We strongly believe that giving back to our county is important,” she said, “and not only doing that through serving our clients, taking care of our staff, but also giving to the community.”

Kidwell & Cunningham won the award over Buckingham Electric LLC, which volunteered services for the construction of the new Millwood Church of Christ and Wakatomika Christian Service Camp, along with several education-based projects in eastern Knox County; and The Peoples Bank of Gambier, which will celebrate its 100-year anniversary in 2020 and has continually supported the Chamber through financial donations and volunteerism.


Business of the Year: Kokosing Construction

Competing nominees: FT Precision, Ohio Eastern Star Home

This award is given to a Chamber member business with more than 50 employees that has been in operation for more than five years and “consistently contributes to both Chamber and community projects, has a reputation for integrity and fair business practice, and has demonstrated management or product innovation as well as successful solutions to business issues.”

Kokosing Construction, which began in Fredericktown 68 years ago, has grown to a billion-dollar operation, working in almost every aspect of construction. The company currently has major projects in 10 states.

Kokosing Construction received the 2018 Build Ohio Award for its work in building the Ottawa River storage facility. It won the 2019 Don Conway Partnering Award for its work on the Jeremiah Morrow Bridge replacement in Cincinnati.

The company was founded by Bill Burgett 68 years ago. It is now transferring leadership from the second generation of Burgetts to the third.

Kokosing Construction has seen continued growth and expansion over the years, as the company now provides employment to 3,500 team members across central Ohio. Over 300 Knox County residents work there.

The Fredericktown location continues to serve as headquarters for maintenance, supply, accounting, IT and human resources. Recent work in Knox County includes building new bridges on State Route 13 (in front of the company’s Waterford office), the ODNR’s Knox Lake dam improvement project, and multiple paving projects. In 2020, Kokosing Construction plans to make improvements to the Knox County Regional Airport.

William Barth Burgett, the son of the company’s founder, currently oversees operations at the Fredericktown location. He accepted the Chamber’s award on Friday night, and told the audience his family’s company has “a lot to be thankful for.”

“This being the heart of Ohio, it has provided many opportunities for us to grow,” Burgett said.

Burgett said afterwards that the company is proud to be based in Knox County.

“It’s a rewarding award for being in the community all these years. We started here in this community 68 years ago… the company grew up here,” Burgett said. “So that’s what allowed us to grow to where we’ve been, with all the employees we’ve got. It’s a good foundation here.”

Kokosing Construction won the award over FT Precision, which recently celebrated 25 years of business and has served as a strong community partner for several local organizations; and the Ohio Eastern Star Home, which recently renovated its living space for elderly clients, including the creation of the Moreland-Hughes Rehabilitation Center.


Lifetime Achievement Award: Karen Buchwald Wright, Ariel Corporation

The Lifetime Achievement Award is arguably Knox County’s highest honor, an annual nod toward the community’s most accomplished businesspeople and philanthropists. Winners have dedicated their lives to betterment of Knox County and are known for their long-term commitment to the community.

Buchwald Wright has been president and CEO of Ariel Corporation since 2001. In addition to running the largest manufacturer of separable reciprocating gas compressors in the world, Buchwald Wright also serves on the National Review Board and the American Petroleum Institute Board. She is involved in numerous other local and national organizations.

But according to local attorney and economic influencer Kim Rose, who introduced Buchwald Wright on Friday, it is the CEO’s philanthropic efforts that set her apart.

Buchwald Wright has envisioned and made possible numerous local projects over the years. As Ariel Corporation’s CEO, she has influenced the company’s generous attitude toward community involvement, spending millions of dollars on initiatives that have moved Mount Vernon forward.

Over the last 30 years, Buchwald Wright has collaborated with local entities to help visualize and fund the following projects:

  • The construction of Hiawatha Water Park
  • The renovation of several downtown properties for MVNU’s use – including its arts school, nursing school, engineering school, and the Mount Vernon Grand Hotel
  • The current upper-level apartment project on the corner of South Main Street and Gambier Street
  • The creation of Kokosing Gap Trail, in collaboration with visionary Phil Samuell
  • The restoration of the B&O Depot
  • The recent creation of South Main Plaza, next to the MVNU arts school
  • The construction of Ariel-Foundation Park, in collaboration with visionary Ted Schnormeier
  • The construction of the Wright Center (in the former Buckeye Candy building), in collaboration with Kenyon College
  • The creation of Harmony Playground
  • The Education Gateway Project, a collaborative effort between Mount Vernon City Schools, MVNU and the City of Mount Vernon
  • The construction of the new COTC building downtown
  • The creation of Knox Community Hospital’s downtown space, as well as its soon-to-be-completed Wright Family Medical Pavilion
  • The restoration of the Woodward Opera House

“While Karen’s known internationally as the chairman and CEO of Ariel Corporation, she’s probably best known for her tireless effort locally to improve the quality of life in our community,” Rose said with a smile.

Buchwald Wright has been recognized locally and nationally for her contributions to the community and country. Rose noted that many of her efforts have positively impacted the lives of children growing up in Mount Vernon and Knox County.

In talking to Buchwald Wright, Rose said she attributed much of her success to her local upbringing. She was raised in Mount Vernon by Jim and Maureen Buchwald, who founded the Ariel Corporation in 1966, and who taught her the values she still carries with her today.

This led Rose to compare Buchwald Wright to Wilbur Wright. Albeit centuries apart, both innovators credited their Ohio upbringings for their international success.

“If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio,” Wilbur Wright once said.

Rose recalled Buchwald Wright saying something similar about her parents:

“In her words, ‘They had the good sense to raise me in Ohio,” Rose told the crowd, “‘where I also learned the value of supporting the community and our company’s employees by encouraging a donating environment that provides a great quality of life through education, technology, recreation and the arts.’”

Buchwald Wright kept her comments brief after accepting the award Friday night.

“I’m only 65, and I feel like I have a few more good years left, so this is a little bit early,” she said with a smile. “I still have a few projects left to do and a lot of things that I think we can continue to improve in Mount Vernon, around the city. I look forward to doing that and working with everybody here. And I really appreciate the honor and recognition, so thank you very much.”

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.