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Gala honors members
Change to new venue is popular
4 GALA pic1
Jim King of the Etowah Water and Sewer Authority board, accompanied by Julie Epp, speaks with Dawsonville Mayor James Grogan, left. The annual Dawson County Chamber of Commerce gala Friday night was held at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. - photo by David Renner Dawson Community News

In a year when change topped the Dawson County Chamber of Commerce's agenda, the move to a new facility for the group's 22nd annual award's ceremony and gala brought a fun, festive and memorable experience Friday night.

Held at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, the event marks the chamber's accomplishments of 2012 and honors many in the community for their contributions. It's also one of the organization's largest fundraisers.

Dawsonville Mayor James Grogan, who sits on both the hall of fame and chamber boards, said he couldn't have been more pleased with the results.

"It was just a fun night for everybody," he said. "I think everyone was having a good time, and it gave everybody a chance to see what we're all about in downtown.

"I'd bet there were people who had never been to the hall of fame or the moonshine distillery before the gala."

The event also gave the chamber an opportunity to pay tribute to the late Linda Williams, who served as president for 16 years before her retirement in July. She passed away a month later.

"Linda will forever be remembered as an advocate for Dawson County, and it's because of that that our board has decided to rename our Ambassador of the Year award to be the Linda Williams Ambassador of the Year award going forward," said Jennifer Baker, outgoing board chair.

"Like Linda, we know the future recipients will be community leaders with a servant heart."

An astonished Diane Lemley, who arrived with plans to volunteer at the gala, was the first recipient of the honor. She was recognized for her commitment to the chamber, its ambassador program and the county.

According to Steve Melching, outgoing ambassador program co-chair, Lemley "symbolizes the very best of the chamber and the ambassador program."

"She's passionate about Dawson County. She's passionate about Dawsonville. She is passionate about her community," he said. "She's even offered dollars and money out of her own pocket for activities that nobody even knows about."

A grateful Lemley said she was "so surprised, but so honored, especially with the award being named for Linda. She was such an amazing lady."

The chamber also presented awards for top volunteer and business leader of the year.

Angela Harben was named the Jim Wallace Volunteer of the Year, while Tony and Gwen Keller, who own the local Chick-fil-A restaurant, received the Don Gordon Business Leader of the Year honor.

"This is very special. I had no idea," Harben said. "I love where I live and I love working with every one of you in this community."

The Kellers, who weren't able to attend the gala, were equally excited to be recognized.

"I'm very honored, but very shocked and very embarrassed that I wasn't there," Tony Keller said later. "We love it here. We love Dawsonville. The people are wonderful and always so thankful. It makes it easy to be generous."

Each year, the chamber's outgoing leader also selects a person or group to receive the Chairman's Award. Baker went with the chamber's entire board of directors.

"There have just been so many people that have made this year possible for me and helped me get through it. At the end of the day I felt that the choice was obvious," she said. "You backed me up. You supported me, encouraged me. Every one of you, thank you so much. It was an awesome year."

As the awards ceremony came to a close, the chamber's 2013 executive committee and board members were sworn into their new positions.

In his first order of business, incoming chairman Peter Hill praised Baker for her service in 2012.

"You know, it's funny, the chamber had some issues," he said. "And along came a leader who was the perfect leader at the perfect time, and it was exactly what the organization needed. We really owe Jennifer a debt of gratitude. Everything she put into the job, I was proud to be a part of it."

Baker said she looks forward to seeing what the future holds for the chamber, which she believes is in good hands with Hill as chairman and Christie Haynes, who replaced Williams as president in July, leading the way.

"I can honestly say our chamber is in the best position it's ever been and it's getting better every day," she said.