The Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce held its 124th annual banquet and awards ceremony on Wednesday night at the Hilton Garden Inn Conference Center where a crowd of more than 600 business professionals and community leaders gathered for the organization’s yearly inspirational rally and networking dinner.
Shawn Clouse, the outgoing chairman of the chamber board, introduced Nick Kaufman as the new chairman-elect.
Kaufman is currently the vice president and principal planner at WGM Group, an engineering, planning, surveying and consulting services company in Missoula. Kaufman said he will focus on transportation issues, among other things, during his tenure.
“We need to be part of the conversation on Russell Street, and we are, and we also need to be a part of the conversation on East Broadway,” he said. “Beautifying the Van Buren entrance to Missoula and making sure the roundabout and all that functions to the benefit of the whole community is one of the things we’re working on this year as part of our transportation effort.”
Kaufman also touted the Chamber’s advocacy website at missoulachamberadvocacycenter.com.
“Right now you can go on and look at what’s going on in terms of local proposals,” he said. “So right now you can see the recreation bond issue and the future of the library bond issue and the future of the school district bond issue. We’re engaged with what’s going on in Missoula.”
There are challenges ahead, such as developing a skilled workforce to fill high-paying jobs, Kaufman explained.
“We’ve always had a wonderful and skilled workforce here,” he said. “That’s one of the things along with our environment that gives us our sense of place and a competitive advantage. But right now there’s a shortage of skilled workers here. So we’ve been working with local high schools, Missoula College and the University of Montana to make sure we’ve got a healthy, vital, skilled workforce. That’s an important job in front of the Chamber of Commerce this year.”
During Wednesday night’s festivities, outgoing chairman Shawn Clouse outlined some of the accomplishments of his tenure.
“We started the hard work that helps your chamber be the relevant and credible voice that Nick talked about,” Clouse said. “Our brand is to be a catalyst for a healthy business environment. This year, we launched a new tag line of engaging businesses and we’ve done a lot of stuff. We advocated for workforce issues, we advocated for what the new Missoula College will look like on the eastern gateway to our city. We advocated for the two new building renewal districts. We advocated for a Missoula events center. Missoula needs an events center. We are probably no closer to getting one than when I said that last year, but Missoula does need one. We also worked on the Russell Street redesign. We went to every meeting to ensure that is going to be a beautiful street.”
Clouse said the Chamber also made affordable broadband, Mountain Line bus transportation issues and levies for Missoula County Public Schools top priorities.
“We want to ensure that Missoula is a great place to live, work, to learn and to play,” he said. “We want our members to become engaged with your Chamber. We are only as good as you make us. We want to keep Missoula as good as it is. We want to sustain a healthy and diverse business environment.”
The Circle of Excellence Award was given to Blackfoot Telecommunications Group of Missoula, a regional diversified broadband company with 165 employees, $105 million in assets and customers in more than 30 Montana and Idaho communities. Blackfoot recently made the single largest donation to the Missoula College in its history.
“The Circle of Excellence Award primarily emphasizes length in business, commitment to unity, reinvesting in community through donations and infrastructure that you build and the people you employ and the staff members that are doing community service,” Clouse explained. “This is an organization that has given back to our community in many ways. They funded events to support members in the Missoula and Montana Chambers of Commerce.”
Blackfoot CEO Bill Squires accepted the award.
“What an honor,” Squires said. “The timing is certainly appropriate because we are celebrating our 60th year as part of the Missoula business community. We’ve been a quiet little company in Missoula for 60 years. We’re not as little as maybe everyone thinks. We’re proud to be a part of this community. We’re proud to do everything we do for Missoula and the rural communities we serve as well. There’s not an Easter egg hunt or rattlesnake hunt or gopher shootout out there that Blackfoot doesn’t support. And we’re extremely proud to be a part of the Chamber of Commerce and we’re so pleased to be awarded this award in the shadows of the other great companies that preceded us.”
The George Award was given to Bruce Buchman, who owns Mr. Miniblind.
“The George Award is the Chamber’s highest award given to an individual who has made significant contributions to the community,” Clouse said. “The intent of the George Award is best summarized by the phrase ‘they did not let George do it all.’ Past award winners have consistently given their time and talents to improve the community.”
Buchman moved to Missoula 30 years ago and worked as a professor at the University of Montana, then worked with people with disabilities. He also was the executive director of the Watson Children’s Shelter. He has also been a school board trustee, a Chamber board member and a member of the Western Montana Fundraiser Association, as well as a Little League baseball coach. He was a facilitator for Leadership Missoula, a program that cultivates and motivates community leaders, for over two decades.
“Buchman spent many years serving on boards in Missoula including 23 years and three terms as president of Child Care Resources,” Clouse said. “He signed every email with the words ‘for the kids’ which is now the name of their annual luncheon fundraiser. Missoula is a much better place because of his tireless efforts and his dedication to kids and the community.”
Buchman said that winning the award was “unreal.”
“I’m humbled, I’m honored,” he said. “The caliber of people that come though the (Leadership Missoula) program would knock your socks off. If there’s anything fair to say about my leadership role it’s the sum result, the contribution of the 1,000 people that participated with me and the staff at the Chamber that worked with me to plan for it. I love this program. It’s great for the community. This award means so very much to me.”