MARY ANN ANDERSON
The Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis County Chamber of Commerce celebrated its growth, welcomed new members, and handed out a host of awards at its annual dinner at Twisted Pine Golf Course last Tuesday.
A crowd of about 200 attended the event, including elected officials, business and community leaders, local residents, and chamber volunteers.
“The attendance was great,” said Sonya Miller, president and executive director of the chamber. “Our silent auction raised about $2,000.”
The theme of the event was “Then and Now: Flashback to the Fifties,” with catering provided by Dick’s Wings and Grill of Hazlehurst. Miller proclaimed the meal as “delicious” and gave a special shout-out of appreciation to Robert Wiggins Jr., owner of Dick’s Wings, who helped serve the crowd a special concoction of peach cobbler.
Miller also showered praise on Eric Smith, who entertained the group with karaoke, and the entire event committee from the chamber’s board for their decorating skills. She also thanked the City of Hazlehurst for providing the event facility at the city-owned Twisted Pine at no charge, and then tipped her hat to Jeff Davis County for providing gifts for the silent auction.
Miller and Andrea Dorminey Taylor, president and CEO of the Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis Joint Development Authority, presided over the festivities with Daniel Ellis giving the invocation and Reagan Day singing the national anthem.
Kim Smith, outgoing chairwoman of the chamber, addressed the group in a farewell speech before welcoming Shannon Deen Kight as incoming chairwoman. Kight will lead the chamber through the remainder of 2019 and into 2020.
During Tuesday’s ceremonies, Dottie Reagin Spires was selected as Citizen of the Year. Spires, a registered nurse and owner of the Polka Dot Pig boutique, was born and raised in Jeff Davis County. She was nominated because of her goal to recognize the positive things and the people who create them, those who she terms “unsung heroes,” within the community. It was that goal that led to her establishing Hazlehurst Hometown Heroes, a program that she created last year.
Each month, Spires accepts nominations to honor those who foster positivity in the community and make it a better place to live. She then selects one of the nominees, and then awards that person with the title of Hazlehurst Hometown Hero. The winner is given a certificate of achievement and several gifts donated by not only the Polka Dot Pig, but also other local businesses including Papa’s Cabin and RBI.
“Her idea is that positive thoughts lead to positive actions,” said Taylor, who presided over the giving of the awards. “The more people she can help recognize in the community, the more positive actions we will see. She proves that leadership is not about position or title, but about action and example.”
The Small Business of the Year award was bestowed upon Village Pizza, owned by Casey Taylor (no relation to Andrea Taylor). Village Pizza has been in Hazlehurst for almost 33 years. When Casey Taylor’s family decided to leave the dairy business several decades ago, they started a pizza business, first in Baxley and then later in Hazlehurst in 1986. Some eight years ago, Casey expanded the restaurant to accommodate his growing customer base, building the new larger Village Pizza just a few steps from where the old one first stood.
“It’s obvious that Casey takes pride in his business,” said Taylor. “The parking lot is always clean, the landscaping is immaculate, and the food is always hot and fresh. One of his secrets is that he has always been willing to change and reinvent things that need changing, but even so he maintains that his pizza recipe hasn’t changed since 1984.”
Bo Reese was named the chamber’s Entrepreneur of the Year. Reese has been in Hazlehurst for 11 years, but, said Taylor, he fits in so well that it seems like he grew up here instead of Florida, where he graduated from the University of Florida.
Reese started his own business in Florida when he was only 16, installing irrigation systems in citrus farms. After selling that business, graduating from college and holding down a few jobs, he began working in 2007 with PalletOne, the nation’s largest new pallet manufacturer, before moving to the Hazlehurst operations in 2008.
“He worked his way up with the company, starting out with a saw and building pallets,” Taylor pointed out before adding with a smile, “Or at least that’s what he likes to say.”
Reese is now vice-president of procurement and a shareholder at PalletOne. When PalletOne started SunOne Logistics, its own logistics company in Hazlehurst, Reese was part of that expansion. SunOne Logistics now numbers 30 employees, while its parent PalletOne has 1,500 employees throughout the country with 90 of those in Jeff Davis County.
The next award was Industry of the Year, with Beasley Forest Products winning that distinction. Beasley has been in Hazlehurst since it was established in 1958, more than a half-century ago. In its infancy, Beasley Forest Products mainly focused on pine pulp production. From operating logging crews to harvesting of whole trees to swamp logging, the early years of Beasley proved its innovative approaches to the logging industry. Since then the company has seen success with saw mills, including the largest hardwood mill in the United States, as well as partnerships with other companies to produce pellets, power, flooring and much more.
“In 2018 Beasley Forest Products had one of the largest industry expansions in Georgia with a $60 million investment and the addition of 50 new jobs,” Taylor told the crowd. “It is that dedication to business and excellence that helps make our community a great place to do business.”
The chamber paid homage to Wyatt W. “Buddy” Spann by bestowing on him its Lifetime Achievement Award.
“He has spent many years of his life in public service, whether it was in the military, on the city council or as mayor of Hazlehurst, a post he served for 24 years,” said Taylor as she gave the award to Spann’s family. “We are very proud of the many public works projects he helped complete as mayor that make Hazlehurst what it is today.”
Spann was a critical component of updating the infrastructure of the city and growing Hazlehurst Municipal Airport from not much more than a landing strip to the completely modernized terminal that it is today, with Taylor adding, “He is a vision of our leadership, current and past, that make our community a great place to be.”
While Spann was unable to attend the banquet, his son, Wyatt W. Spann Jr., and daughter, Gail Spann Miller, spoke for and accepted the award on his behalf.
Jeff Davis High School senior Uziel Rios was selected as STAR student, and he selected School Improvement Specialist Dustin Allen as the STAR teacher.
“The STAR student is the senior who scores highest on the SAT and must be in the top 10 percent of his or her class,” explained Taylor. “The STAR Teacher is selected by the STAR student for having made the most significant contribution to the STAR Student’s scholastic development.”
Rios has been accepted at Emory University in Atlanta, where he will begin classes in the fall. He plans to major in pre-med. Allen is now School Improvement Specialist at Jeff Davis High School, where he previously taught Social Studies.
Nominations for next year’s chamber awards will be announced in early 2020.