The 73rd annual Milledgeville Baldwin County Chamber of Commerce awards gala held Saturday was unlike any other in history.
Usually a night to get dressed up and celebrate the stars of the local business landscape, this year’s ceremony took place virtually in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the format may have changed, the recognitions remained the same as Small Business of the Year, Rising Star, and Making A Difference award winners were all crowned.
Williams Funeral Home, in business since the mid-‘60s, came away as the big winner earning the Small Business of the Year nod.
“It’s an honor, and it was unexpected,” said Cam Williams, owner of the funeral home. “I couldn’t be prouder of my staff. We call each other family up here, and we’re all humbled by the experience, for sure. We’ve got a great staff and I can’t give them enough credit for how much compassion and care they show others. They’re always willing to go above and beyond without complaint.”
Other finalists vying for the title were Erin Andrews Media, ServPro, and the Stribling Law Firm. Williams pointed out that any of the companies very well could have won the award based on their reputations, a sentiment with which Chamber President/CEO Angie Martin agreed.
“All four of them have done phenomenally well in pivoting and being really creative in light of the pandemic,” said Martin. “I thought each of them was so deserving of the award. I’m thrilled for Williams, but all four of the finalists really were top notch in their adaptability and their support of the community.”
Small Business of the Year finalists are either self-nominated or nominated by others in the community. Their Chamber membership has to be at a minimum of three years and they must employ 50 or fewer workers. The award is meant to recognize successful privately-owned, for-profit entities. The selection committee is comprised of Chamber board members and previous winners of the Small Business of the Year Award.
Williams Funeral Home was started by Williams’ grandfather, James A. Williams, in Wilkinson County in 1964. The business has been passed down through the years, and now includes locations in three counties. Like the other award finalists, the funeral home found ways to continue offering services despite the pandemic. Williams’ staff used technology to their advantage, live-streaming funerals so family and friends could still pay their respects since large gatherings have not been allowed these last 10 or so months.
The funeral home was not the only award recipient recognized Saturday. Downtown restaurant The Reel Grill won the Chamber’s Rising Star Award given to businesses making a splash in their first three years of existence. The self-explanatory Making A Difference Award was won by Comfort Farms, which was started by U.S. Army veteran Jon Jackson. The farm’s mission is to help military veterans by preparing them for careers in sustainable food production while helping them cope with any emotional issues they may bring home from service.
While the annual Chamber gala is meant to recognize several local business stars, there were quite a few other stars involved as this year’s ceremony made the switch from live event to a production. The whole ceremony was shot and recorded over just three days last week before the Saturday premiere. Old Capitol Productions, owned by Walter Reynolds, handled those duties.
“I thought it was fantastic,” the Chamber president Martin said of the video. “I could not have been more pleased with everybody, but particularly Walter. It far surpassed any expectations I had. I got compliments from chambers in other communities and friends of mine. It was really high class.”
Martin added that while she hopes the gala can return to an in-person event in the future, the video format was a nice pivot in a time of need.