Reprinted with permission. Originally published in the Argus-Press.
OWOSSO TWP. — Community business leaders packed D’Mar Banquet & Conference Center as the Shiawassee Regional Chamber of Commerce lauded their enthusiasm, community spirit and guidance at the group’s annual dinner Thursday night.
The Chamber of Commerce award winners all were announced previously. Thursday, chamber officials and other guests gathered to honor the winners.
“It’s truly an exciting time to be in Shiawassee County,” Chamber President/CEO Jeff Deason said. “You look around the room and you see all the successful entrepreneurs we have here … it’s really exciting to see what we have on tap.”
For Citizen of the Year award winner Helen Howard, the night was an opportunity to pitch for help from volunteers. Howard, the executive director of Respite Volunteers of Shiawassee County, graciously thanked the chamber for the honor before saying that Respite needs more patients to serve.
“I am so grateful and so humbled to receive this prestigious award,” Howard said. “I’m going to ask you to help us. I’m going to ask you to think of who in your family, circle of friends and employees, needs us and doesn’t know about us. We’re still one of the best-kept secrets (in Shiawassee County) … Our volunteers can make a huge difference.”
The award, which is sponsored by the Chamber and The Argus-Press, was presented by 2015 award winner Bruce Cook, who told the crowd of Howard’s background.
Howard was an original member of the task force that investigated the need for respite services in Shiawassee County. Later, she served on the planning coalition team that founded Respite Volunteers in 1993.
Currently, the organization offers services — providing time and attention to people who are homebound so their caregivers can run errands, go shopping and keep appointments.
Prior to working with Respite Volunteers, Howard was the elder services director for the Shiawassee Community Mental Health Authority. She has been a nursing instructor at both Lansing Community College and Baker College of Owosso.
Other award winners used the night as an opportunity for reflection. Sue Ludington, who received the ATHENA award, spoke about a lunch she shared with three friends. The occasion ended up resulting in an idea to form a charitable organization.
The group, 100-plus Women Who Care of the Greater Owosso Area — now totaling more than 200 members, she said — dedicated itself to gathering local women together for the purpose of benefiting community groups in need. In 2016, they awarded more than $54,000 to three area charitable causes; the Baby Pantry, Welcome Home Veterans and the Owosso Public Schools’ Backpack Program.
“We were really unsure of how many women would join, and we thought, if we got 30 to 50, that would mean $3,000 to $5,000 for a local nonprofit,” Ludington said. “Our first meeting was Feb. 29 and the theme of the meeting was ‘Take a Leap of Faith.’ Let me tell you, the women of our community took a leap of faith with us: 150 women joined.”
Ludington also co-owns Ludington Electric company in Owosso with husband Carl and is a longtime volunteer with the Owosso Community Players, serving on the fund development and finance committees, and is chairwoman of the OCP marketing committee.
“This has been such an unexpected honor,” Ludington said. “I’m very grateful to receive this honor and very proud to be among the incredible women who have received the ATHENA award before.”
Michael Paine, who received the Outstanding Small Business award, became emotional and received a standing ovation when he recalled the troubled past that brought him home to Owosso, after moving to northern Michigan. He said he became an alcoholic and was homeless, but as of Wednesday, has been sober for one full year.
“There were so many special people who reached out to help me … to receive this honor is truly incredible,” he said. “This town is incredible.”
Paine, the owner of Michael Paine Photography studio in Owosso, specializes in weddings, portraits, senior pictures and product photos. He frequently volunteers his time to shoot events for the Chamber and other groups.
John Beilfuss, who owns and operates the Lula’s Louisiana Cookhouse restaurant in Owosso, received the Chairman’s Award with his wife Morgan. He recalled when the two first moved to Owosso 23 years ago.
“Driving into this town, it was about halfway between where we would both be working, coming in from the west, we saw a sign on the building for ‘Owosso Taco Hut,’” he said to laughs from the crowd. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God! They’ve got tacos here! We have to move here! It’s going to be awesome!
“Well, things have changed. But we’re glad to be here and be part of the growth of downtown Owosso.”
In 2016, Lula’s received a number of honors, including the “Best Fried Chicken In Michigan” by MLive “Best of Michigan.” Opentable.com listed Lula’s as the Best Overall Restaurant and the Best Restaurant for Service in all of eastern Michigan and Detroit, according to the Chamber. The restaurant was also named “One of the Most Unique Restaurants in Michigan for an Unforgettable Dining Experience” by onlyinyourstate.com.
Jim Slingerland, who received the Outstanding Medium Business award, looked back on the 1989 beginning of his Caledonia Township car dealership, Slingerland Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram Fiat.
“We opened on a sunny Monday morning with seven employees,” said Slingerland, who currently employs about 30. “I’m proud to say that we still have three of those employees … I think that speaks volumes about our core group. There’s not a day that goes by where I’m not reminded our employees are the No. 1 asset we have.”
According to the Chamber, Slingerland has for decades held Chrysler’s coveted “Five Star Dealer” designation, which is based upon efficiency, customer satisfaction and corporate benchmarks. In 2015, the dealership received an award from Chrysler for selling its line of cars for 25 years.
The company enjoyed a big year in 2016, with an uptick in sales and the addition of a new franchise, Fiat. With the move, Slingerland became just the fourth Chrysler/Fiat dealership in Michigan.
Similarly, Bryan Marks of Great Lakes Fusion, who received the award for Oustanding Large Business, used the opportunity to thank staff.
“I’m reminded of something my grandfather used to say: Surround yourself with good people and good things will come,” Marks said. “It’s very true.”
Marks started Great Lakes Fusion in 1998 at a small shop in the village of Vernon. In 2014, he moved that business, as well as another business he owns, Exotic Concrete Creations, into the former Premarc building on M-71 in Vernon Township. That move jumpstarted business in the 73,000-square-foot facility, which saw two more businesses, 2nd Chance Wood and Vernon Upholstery and Sewing, move in not long after.
In 2015, Marks opened two new businesses, Great Lakes Fabrication and Machining and Great Lakes Ready Mix, at the same site. Both businesses serve clients regionally.
Other award winners included Roy Thelen, the local student coordinator for CCI Greenheart, who received the Mission Award, and Jason and Karen Harris of Harris Electric, who received the Rising Star Award.
CCI Greenheart is a nonprofit that connects people and planet to create global leaders through personal development, volunteer service, environmentalism, fair trade and cultural exchange.
Since 1985, CCI Greenheart has offered cultural exchange programs in the U.S. that connect Americans with international students.
Harris Electric has been operating since November 2014 and provides full electrical services and contracting across Michigan’s lower peninsula.