LAKE JUNALUSKA — It’s been two years since the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce has been able to hold an annual awards presentation.

Like many other events in 2020, the dinner was suspended, but last week at Lake Junaluska’s York Lakeside Dining Deck, chamber members made up for lost time.

The expansive deck allowed plenty of space for business owners to mingle and catch up, while the indoor space provided ample room for tables of eight.

The event was all about celebrating a year of survival in the local business world.

Ken Howle, Lake Junaluska Assembly’s chief executive officer, told the crowd Haywood is stronger than ever because all were able to work together.

“We put aside our differences and came together as Haywood County during a time of great uncertainty,” Howle told a crowd of about 80. “Because of this, we are stronger today and will be even stronger as we move into the future.”

He then introduced the winners of the first-ever Haywood Strong awards to those who showed resiliency during a global pandemic. The list included businesses that opened during the pandemic, governmental organizations who pivoted to provide services in a new way and several nonprofits.

The businesses and organizations that received the Haywood Strong awards modeled great leadership and perseverance by remaining open even when facing financial challenges.

Mountain Credit Union was named Business of the Year.

In announcing the award, Chamber President CeCe Hipps recalled the grand opening scheduled at Mountain Credit Union the weekend of the shutdown.

The event was postponed, but the business continued to operate under the changed business environment under COVID rules.

Regional Manager Diane Nichols told the crowd the award meant a lot.

“Even when COVID happened, we adapted and handled business in the drive-through, opened accounts, handled business mortgages, and we did it well,” Nichols said. “We continued to grow by leaps and bounds in that location, and it’s been great for us.”

Nichols said the credit union is most proud of the partnership with Rotary, which is sponsoring a program to help individuals save money and learn about finances.

The Entrepreneur of the Year Award went to Abundant Labs, which opened a state-of-the art hemp processing facility in Canton in early 2019.

Business CEO Chip Miller accepted the award and recalled the setback to the business due to COVID.

“We launched a multi-million dollar business in early 2019, finished construction in December and launched January,” Miller said. “We were off and running and very excited, then the pandemic hit. A lot of our business is international, so it was pretty devastating to us.”

Still, the business stayed open and kept 70% of its staff, Miller said, and then announced Abundant Labs will be increasing its staff by 30% in the next 30 days and is hoping to double its capacity over the next six months thanks to a partnership with an Illinois facility.

Other award winners honored included Lorelei Garnes, WNC Social Media Buzz, who was recognized as Ambassador of the Year, and Brannan Cunningham, Sparksmith, who was named Young Professional of the Year.

Board Chairman Scott McLeod recognized outgoing board members Ken Flynt, Steve McNeil, John Tench and Fred Waring, along with incoming board members Emily McCurry, Richie Sund, Bill Nolte, Sandra Dennison, Billy Case and Greg Caples.

Michael Coleman, Haywood Community College’s vice president of student services, is the incoming chairman.

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