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Winners of 2020 Cook County Chamber Annual Business Awards

Oct 29, 2020 01:10PM ● By Editor
From the Cook County Chamber of Commerce - October 29, 2020

Christina Conroy, operator of the Rebel Girl Community Minded Catering and Bad Seed Food Stand, has received the 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year award from the Cook County Chamber, it was announced Wednesday on WTIP. Conroy’s nomination cited her hard work, grit and determination  to ensure local workers, residents and visitors are fed – an especially important goal this year, when the pandemic has so reduced the Cook County capacity to serve diners.

Also nominated for the entrepreneur of the year award were Abby and Sam Hedstrom, Kate and Jeremy Keeble for successfully opening The Fisherman’s Daughter take-out restaurant in the space formerly occupied by Dockside. The Hedstroms and Keebles overcame extraordinary obstacles to develop and open their restaurant very quickly in a year dominated by the dislocations of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Karen Blackburn, board chair for the Chamber, presented the award to Conroy during an hour-long WTIP awards program. Blackburn was joined by Jim Boyd, Chamber executive director, and Joe Friedrichs of WTIP. In an ordinary year, the Chamber awards are presented at the annual Fall Gala organized by Visit Cook County to celebrate the successful end of another busy tourism season. This year the pandemic made the gala impossible, so the Chamber awards moved to WTIP.

The second award presented on WTIP Wednesday was for Business of the Year and went to Grand Marais State Bank for the extraordinary effort it put into providing federal Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans to Cook County businesses. The nomination of GMSB said the bank staff made applying for a PPP loan “really easy.” Nationwide, many large banks were criticized for making the process deliberately difficult and for awarding most of the loans to the largest corporations instead of the smaller operations for whom the program was designed.

The Business of the Year Award was accepted by Mark Youngdahl, bank president. Youngdahl praised the bank’s owners for providing strong guidance that the bank was to do everything it could to help local businesses survive. He also praised the bank staff for diligent work to serve business customers seeking PPP loans. All told, GMSB managed $7 million in PPP loans. A large portion of those loans is forgivable if the receiving businesses pledged to keep their staff employed. Youngdahl and his staff now are in the process of working through the applications for forgiveness.

Other nominees for Business of the Year Award, all eminently deserving, included WTIP, which received two nominations, for its general effort to keep the Cook County community informed and entertained. One nomination focused especially on WTIP’s strong, determined effort to keep the community updated on the latest news regarding the pandemic.

Also nominated was Voyageur Brewing Co. for “providing consistent safe service for visitors and employees” and remaining open every day of the pandemic.

Johnson’s Big Dollar Food Store, which won this award in 2016, was nominated again for “consistently being there for the community.”

Latz Properties of Lutsen also received a nomination for owner Jeff Latz’ decades of service to the Lutsen community. The nomination said that Jeff Latz, who is retiring this year, for decades has served as “the heart and soul of ‘downtown Lutsen.’ “

A third award presented Wednesday was to the Community Business Leader of the Year. This award goes to someone who has served the community in ways that go far beyond their day job. It recognizes service on boards, as a volunteer and also as a financial benefactor for worthwhile community causes.

The 2020 Community Business Leader of the Year Award went to Dennis Rysdahl, who recently gained the title of FORMER owner of the Bluefin Bay Family of Resorts when it was sold. The nomination said it would be easier to name the Cook County board Dennis Rysdahl has not served, frequently as chair, than those he has served. Over decades, Rysdahl has been generous with his time, with his considerable leadership skills and with his checkbook.

Matthew Brown, general manager at WTIP, also was nominated. Brown is one of the all-round good guys of Cook County – friendly, generous and deeply committed to his community. The nomination cited his pandemic willingness to clean the WTIP washrooms and sweep its floor as evidence of his dedication to service. He also serves on the board at Sawtooth Mountain Clinic and volunteers at North House Folk School, Ruby’s Pantry and many other places.

Susan Prom, co-owner at Voyageur Brewing Co., also was nominated. The nomination said Prom has “basically worked herself to the bone throughout this whole pandemic.” Prom has ensured the brewery “followed and enforced every rule to ensure a safe and satisfying experience for each guest and employee.”

Chris Callender, former chef at Wunderbar, also was nominated for “his free meals venture” during the early months of the pandemic, when he “made something like 3,500 meals over several months … just on his own time,” using random donations and access to the Wunderbar’s kitchen. It was, the nominator said, “Pretty cool.”

A final award presented Wednesday was the Norman Deschampe Distinguished Community Service Award. This is an occasional award, presented only when someone emerges who deserves a special honor. Norman Deschampe was a founding board member of the Cook County Chamber. The award was presented for the first time in 2019, to One Roof Community Housing for overcoming incredible obstacles to successfully construct workforce rental housing in Lutsen and single family homes in Grand Marais.

 Jim Boyd announced that the Chamber Board had decided the Norman Deschampe Award should be awarded for a second year in a row, this time to the entire Cook County Community, for its “calm, caring and serious response to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.” With very few exceptions, Boyd said, “The people of Cook County have been so impressive in how they responded to this virus threat. They have taken it seriously; they have respectfully honored the varied practices established by county businesses; they have been patient, and they have volunteered in so many caring ways to help keep this community and its visitors as safe as possible.”

Boyd said there were so many people who deserved a shout out for their contributions that it would be impossible to name them all, and inevitably some would be missed.

One that deserves special recognition, Boyd said, is Rena Rogers, who served as interim county administrator through the first eight months of the pandemic. She did an outstanding job of mobilizing the county early in the pandemic and establishing a top flight Emergency Operations Center staff to manage the county effort to manage the pandemic. Her quiet, effective leadership had a strong influence on the county’s pandemic response.

Rogers accepted the Norman Deschampe Award on behalf of the community. She, too, praised the community for its outstanding performance to this point in the pandemic. The Deschampe Award was a great honor to accept, she said.

Boyd said that when the pandemic finally is over and it is possible to grasp its full effect, the Chamber would like to erect some sort of permanent monument recognizing the community’s excellent response and all of the volunteer effort that went into that response.

But he also  emphasized that while the community has performed brilliantly to this point, the pandemic is not over, and though everyone suffers “COVID fatigue,” now is not the time to let up. The threat from the virus is now growing, and key to defeating it is a redoubled effort to honor best practices every day: Frequent hand washing, avoiding large crowds, wearing masks everywhere indoors except our homes, staying home when even mildly ill. 

He mentioned too that during a recent spurt in positive tests for the virus, Cook County’s contact tracing team has met some pushback against their recommendation of a 14-day quarantining for anyone who has been in close contact with a person testing positive. Some have expressed doubt about the need to quarantine and their strong desire to continue to work. 

“We all want a return to normal life, with our kids in school, our businesses thriving and our friends and neighbors maskless and free to enjoy life,” Boyd said. “But the surest path to that normal life runs through a prolonged period of careful adherence to the rules of this COVID era, including the very strong public health request/recommendation that if you are exposed to the virus,  you need to quarantine for 14 days. About 5-7 days following your exposure, taking a test may be recommended. But whether that test turns out positive or negative, you need to finish out your 14-day quarantine. Public health experts tell us it’s the only way to keep everyone safe.”

Boyd added: If you or your employees have questions about quarantine or workplace safety, please call Cook County Public Health at 218-387-3605.  If you or an employee has questions about symptoms or testing, call Sawtooth Mountain Clinic at 218-387-2330.

Jim Boyd
Executive Director
Cook County Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 805 
Grand Marais, MN 55604
218-370-9665 (office/cell)
218-387-2466 (home)