COLUMBIA CITY — The Whitley County Chamber of Commerce & Visitor’s Center kicked off its 100th-year celebration with its annual awards banquet last week at the Eagles Nest Event Center in Columbia City.

In front of the largest attendance on record, Executive Director Jennifer Romano and Board President Mike Defreeuw briefly described the past 100 years of the Chamber, which began as the Commercial Development Club in 1919.

The club was formed to focus on the commerce needs of the community, and was led by H.B. Clugston, the founder and first president of the organization. In the early years, the group gathered in meeting rooms above what is now the Elks on the east side of the courthouse.

In 1951, under the direction of Paul Morsches, the organization became the Columbia City Chamber of Commerce, with a primary goal of attracting tourism. The Chamber’s office was located on the second floor of City Hall.

After several location changes, the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce & Visitor’s Center is now back downtown at 128 W. Van Buren St.

“Being right in the heart of our downtown is where we’re meant to be,” Romano said.

The Chamber plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary throughout the next year, delving deeper into its history.

“As we enter our 100th year, we are looking forward to celebrating the many ways the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center has shaped the community,” Defreeuw said.

Thirty new members joined the Chamber in the past year, making the total 255 — a 28 percent increase since 2016.

Allen named Ambassador of the Year

For someone who is not even a resident of Churubusco or Whitley County, Pete Allen has invested much in the community.

His hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed, as Allen was the recipient of the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce Ambassador of the Year award at its annual banquet last week.

Allen has worked for STAR Financial Bank in Churubusco for the past 10 years, and has volunteered much of his time to be part of both Churubusco and Whitley County.

“A few months ago, our Ambassador of the Year appeared at my door and asked if there was anything he could do to help the Chamber,” Romano said. “Aware of my aggressive membership goals for the years ahead, he blocked out several hours of his schedule to help me compile a list of prospects, divided up the list and began knocking on doors.”

Allen helped bring in several new members — many representing new demographics and areas where the Chamber wanted to grow membership.

Churubusco has its own chamber of commerce, and Allen has helped bring together the two organizations to better the community.

“I just try to help advocate for Churubusco and Whitley County — spread goodwill and ambassador between the communities to help grow both of them,” Allen said. “When they win, we win. It’s a growth factor for all. One community, all together.”

Allen has served on several committees and given time to both Chambers.

“He’s rolled up his sleeves to help with special events and brainstormed some fantastic new ideas to perk up our golf outings — he brings humor, enthusiasm and a light-hearted spirit to any event he attends,” Romano said.

Though Allen does not live in Churubusco or Whitley County, he hopes to make it his home soon.

“It’s a great time to be part of Churubusco. There’s so much positivity and growth,” Allen said. “Churubusco is waiting to explode — it’s going to happen. People love the hometown feel. The football games are amazing, the electricity is amazing, the people are amazing. Where else can you go in this day and age that the people still care for each other?”

Allen has been working with Churubusco Chamber President Kevin Rothgeb. The pair were former coworkers and are now working toward a different cause.

“He brings a great amount of energy to the Chamber,” Allen said. “At the end of the day, we’re all working together.”

One Community is Jewel of the Community

One Community is one of many nonprofits in Whitley County that meet the needs of the community.

The Chamber awards the Jewel of the Community to one nonprofit Chamber member each year.

“Whitley County’s nonprofit organizations serve a critical role in meeting the needs of our community and we are fortunate to count many of the county’s greatest nonprofits as our members,” Defreeuw said. “Our award recipient has put a laser focus on servicing the unique needs of residents in the Whitko community.”

Using a multi-generational approach, One Community provides meals and activities for senior citizens twice a week.

“Their programs often utilize the expertise of many other Chamber members, enriching seniors’ lives,” Defreeuw said.

Additionally, One Community serves children ages 18 and younger, five days a week during the summer — free of charge.

The organization also has a mentoring program for elementary school students, oversees the South Whitley Youth League and assists with a community preschool.

“In many ways, One Community is tapping into the enthusiasm, talents and caring of community volunteers to meet the many needs of their neighbors,” Defreeuw said.

ReMax Integrity named Small Business of the Year

After overcoming much adversity in the past year, ReMax Integrity leaders Angela Grable and Jeremy Patton landed on their feet after a fire destroyed their place of business.

“Rising from the ashes of their former business, they quickly found footing in a new location and became ReMax Integrity,” Romano said. “Their business is growing, they’re making plans for a new building — and actively working to help other businesses grow.”

ReMax Integrity is involved in many community events and even created some of its own, such as the Yahtzee Run, which raised more than $18,000 for a local nonprofit, The Forklift.

“At a time they could have been focused on their own tragedy, ReMax Integrity has been working hard to give back to the community,” Romano said.

Along with being active Chamber members, ReMax employees participated in the Old Settlers Parade, board parade on Big Cedar Lake, had a booth at the Whitley County 4-H Fair and volunteered time there, and have volunteered in the Main Street Association, Tri-Lakes Fireworks Committee, Relay for Life and the Children’s Miracle Network.

Large Business of the Year: Five Star Distributing

“Our Large Business of the Year recipient has been quenching the thirst of millions in northeast Indiana from their headquarters in Whitley County since 2005,” Defreeuw said.

Five Star Distributing serves 1,100 retailer locations, from Kosciusko County to the Ohio state line, and from the Michigan state line to Grant County — an area of more than 5,000 square miles.

Stan Ziherl, president of Five Star Distributing, oversees a staff of 100 and loves his location in Whitley County.

“Five Star Distributing has been an important support of their home community since their arrival,” Defreeuw said.

In addition to being a Chamber member, the company supports other projects, including serving as a sponsor of the Holiday Open House last December. Ziherl supports other groups as well, such as the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department, Ducks Unlimited, Whitley County FOP, Columbia City Fire Department, Potch Wheeler Scholarship Fund, United Way and the Columbia City Police Department’s K-9 Unit.

Rhoades Automotive is best employer

During a time when unemployment rates are low, retaining employees is not easy. Lamonte Rhoades at Rhoades Automotive seems to have it figured out, however.

“Our Employer of the Year Award recipient is going above and beyond to not only attract talent, but keep the good people the company has,” Romano said.

Romano read an excerpt from the nomination letter, which says that Rhoades treats his employees like they’re his own sons — using teachable moments to help them “develop into honorable young men — whether it be in how they carry themselves in a workplace or on a personal basis.”

Rhoades buys lunch for the entire staff on birthdays and work anniversaries and gives Christmas bonuses.