Chamber honors businesses for resilience, innovation during pandemic year

Photos by Tom Rivers: The Orleans County Chamber of Commerce presented its annual awards on Thursday at Maison Albion on West Countyhouse Road. Pictured, front row, from left: Gatlen Ernst, owner of Ernst Lake Breeze Marina (Hidden Gem Award); Karen Kinter, daughter of Fred Pilon who received a lifetime achievement award; Cassie Langdon, assistant director of The Treehouse in Albion and Michelle Waters, owner The Treehouse (new business of the year); Amy Schrader, a nurse at Orleans Community Health (business of the year) and Amanda Mrzywka, co-owner of Navarra’s Greenhouses (agricultural business of the year). Back row: Steve Mowers, president of CRFS, and Sean Casher, human resources director for CRFS (employer of the year); Spencer Pilon, son of Fred Pilon (lifetime achievement award); Marc Shurtz, CEO of Orleans Community Health (business of the year); and Markus Mrzywka, co-owner of Navarra’s greenhouses (agricultural business of the year). Missing from photo: Sam’s Diner in Holley (small business of the year); Hospice of Orleans (community service award); Home Leasing in Rochester, owner of Holley Gardens - former Holley High School (phoenix award); and Bryan and Larissa DeGraw, owners of 810 Meadworks (business persons of the year).

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 15 November 2020 at 9:23 pm

ALBION – The Orleans County Chamber of Commerce honored several businesses, organizations and citizens on Thursday during the 22nd annual awards celebration for the Chamber.

This time there wasn’t a dinner or a big crowd due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of the award winners attended the smaller-scale celebration at Maison Albion on West Countyhouse Road.

Darlene Hartway, Chamber executive director, said all businesses are worthy of recognition this year, due to the challenges of the pandemic.

“You will hear the words — adapt, generous, hard working and tenacity — in many of the descriptions for tonight’s award winners,” Hartway said.

Many businesses have worked through restrictions to keep serving the public in a safe manner, Hartway said.

“Business owners and communities must learn to adapt to rapid changes if they wish to survive,” Hartway said. “Our awards winners not only survived but they thrived. I am in awe at the sacrifices, dedication and commitment many of them showed when faced with challenges. I was taught true character shows in a time of adversity. Our winners tonight have shown their true character.”

Business of the Year: Orleans Community Health

Marc Shurtz, CEO of Orleans Community Health, and Amy Schrader, a nurse at OCH, accept the business of the year award on behalf of Orleans Community health.

Orleans Community Health and Medina Memorial Hospital have been providing healthcare in the community for more than a century. The hospital started in 1908 when a group of citizens, interested in establishing a publicly-owned hospital opened the 9-bed establishment in the Albert Sweet Home.

Today Orleans Community Health is comprised of Medina Memorial Hospital, a designated Critical Access Hospital, Renal Dialysis Centers located in Medina and Batavia, Primary and Walk-In Clinic in Albion, a 30-bed Skilled Nursing Home, Outpatient and Ambulatory Services, a Wound Care Center, and Community Partners Wellness Center.

“Orleans Community Health has an amazingly dedicated and committed staff that focuses on serving residents in Orleans, Eastern Niagara and northern Genesee counties,” Hartway said. “The healthcare industry is always rapidly changing and this year they had the addition of a pandemic. Throughout all of this, they have continued to be impressed with the level of compassion and dedication that our very own local healthcare workers display, each and every day.”

Marc Shurtz, OCH chief executive officer, thanked the community for their support, especially during the pandemic. Many people and businesses have bought meals for the staff and shown their appreciation, he said.

Community members made masks for employees early in the pandemic. They donated PPE.

“It was really the whole community that did it,” Shurtz said. “We’re not only here for you, but we’re here because of you.”

Lifetime Achievement Award: Fred Pilon, owner of Pilon Construction

Spencer Pilon accepts the award on behalf of his father, Fred Pilon.

Fred Pilon

Fred Pilon has worked in construction in Albion for the past 50 years. The family business originated from his father, Charles Pilon. As a second-generation owner, Fred took over in 1972, when he was 25 years old.

He and his wife Carol have six children with three of the sons – Kevin, Jason and Spencer – work with Pilon.

Pilon Construction has grown significantly over the years. In the ’70s, Fred worked with farmers to dig and install irrigation systems. The majority of the last 30 years he specialized in installing municipal waterlines across WNY. Kevin leads all the waterline projects.

The company mines Medina Sandstone in one of the last sandstone quarries in the county. Fred also has preserved many sandstone blocks and materials from torn down structures. Those pieces are valuable for sites that want some of the area’s famous stone. The Bank of Castile in Medina turned to Pilon for Medina Sandstone for its new building.

Spencer Pilon leads the division specializing in breakwall restorations, which has been busy due to the high Lake Ontario water levels in 2017 and 2019.

“He has given his whole life to his business and community,” Spencer said. “It shows hard work pays off.”

New Business of the Year: The Tree House in Albion

Michelle Waters (center), owner of The Tree House in Albion, accepts the award for new business of the year from Courtney Henderson, owner of Milk & Honey in Albion, who won the award in 2019.

Michelle Waters opened the The Tree House on March 12, right before Gov. Cuomo and the state would impose restrictions on businesses, forcing many to temporarily close to in-person services.

Waters was able to pivot the early childhood enrichment business that specializes in preschool and toddler programs.

She developed activity kits to help families who suddenly had children home – nearly all the time. She delivered them throughout Western New York. Those kits were fun and educational. There was a stuffed puppy kit, a project where children could assembly a bird feeder, a kit to do a dinosaur dig and others.

The site on the second floor at 116 North Main St. was able to reopen in July for parties, events and programs.

“While the path has been bumpy, the lessons that they have learned and the relationships that they have built far outweigh the background noise,” said Courtney Henderson, owner of Milk and Honey, which won new business of the year in 2019. “Their mission is still loud and clear: deliver a high caliber early childhood experience.”

Phoenix Award – Holley Gardens (former Holley High School)

The former Holley High School received $17 million in renovations in a project led by Home Leasing of Rochester. The building was last used as a school in 1975. After two years of construction, Home Leasing has the building fully occupied with 41 apartments and the Holley village offices.

One of the most stunning redevelopment projects in Orleans County history was completed this year with the former Holley High School finding a new use with 41 apartments for residents 55 and older, and also the Holley village offices.

The building, constructed in 1931, sat vacant and is increasing disrepair for more than two decades. It was last used by a manufacturing company in the late 1990s and that company went bankrupt, leaving the site in limbo.

Holley village officials and residents refused to give up hope for the structure that dominants the corner of routes 31 and 237. The village worked to get the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which made a developer eligible for historic tax credits.

The Landmark Society of Western New York named it to annual “Five to Revive” of important sites in the region that needed preservation.

Home Leasing leaders saw the school on the Five to Revive and decided to give it a look. They were impressed by the response of the community, in pushing for the site to be redeveloped. The construction project took two years and cost about $17 million. Last week the community held a ribbon-cutting celebration for the project.

Businesspersons of the Year: Bryan and Larissa DeGraw

Photo courtesy of Thom Jennings: Bryan DeGraw is shown with winning meads produced by 810 Meadworks in Medina. 810 Meadworks, owner by DeGraw and his wife Larissa, recently won two awards in the Mazer Cup International, a gold medal for Scarlett A and a bronze medal for Sweet Devotion.

The Chamber is recognizing Bryan and Larissa DeGraw as businesspersons of the year for their “tenacity” in keeping 810 Meadworks open to the public during a time of many changing state regulations for businesses that serve alcohol during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The DeGraws don’t have an on-site kitchen so they partnered with another local businesses to have sandwiches available to meet one state regulation.

“They have encountered so many obstacles and changes,” said Hartway, the Chamber director.

The DeGraws opened 810 Meadworks in November 2014 on West Center Street in downtown Medina.

The DeGraws wanted to offer a place for “people to connect and enjoy one another.” They have added 810 Axes, an indoor axe throwing range in 2019, and also the Beegarten, outdoor performing venue.

“There are many things to be proud of this year but the most important thing is the relationship with the people we have met,” the DeGraws said in a letter to the Chamber. “Our customers are amazing. They have been an incredible support and encouragement throughout our six years in business but especially this year. We have received much inspiration from their unending dedication to the family environment our business embraces.”

The DeGraws said 810 Meadworks is eager for next year when they hope to make up for all the missed events in 2020.

“While 2020 has been a challenge we are hopeful for big things next year,” they said. “We look forward to continuing on creating a place that makes people feel good.”

Small Business of the Year: Sam’s Diner in Holley

Photo by the Chamber of Commerce: Sam’s Diner has been a popular place in Holley’s Public Square since 1978.

Sam’s Diner has been a mainstay in Holley since 1978. The diner is popular for its food, friendly and caring staff, and generous support of the community from the owner, George Gitsis.

His father, Sam Gitsis, started the diner which has remained an anchor in the Holley downtown.

Throughout the Covid pandemic, Chamber officials said George Gitsis went out of his way to make sure that his customers were taken care of efficiently and safety. He installed air purification systems and dividers, all at great expense to ensure his customers health and safety.

Gitsis also supports the Holley School’s baseball team’s fundraiser by giving a 10% discount to anyone that has a “Hawk Card”.

“It has become a Holley tradition for high school seniors to go to Sam’s Diner for the first day of school breakfast,” said David Gagne, Chamber board vice president and a frequent Sam’s customer. “This year they were unable to due to Covid restrictions. George generously paid for breakfast pizzas for the entire senior class from the neighboring Crosby’s store. He is the first to donate to many of the Holley community organizations.”

Gitsis has shown in many ways he cares deeply for the community and his employees.

“The caring, friendly atmosphere of the Diner is a direct reflection on George’s personality,” Gagne said. “His entire staff present and past, have great love and admiration for this amazing gentleman who makes them feel like family.”

Community Service Award: Hospice of Orleans

Provided photo: Hospice of Orleans has been providing services in Orleans County since 1994. Its office and the Martin-Linsin Residence are located on Route 31 in Albion.

An organization that started in 1994 was honored for its service to the community, Hospice of Orleans has been serving families for 26 years now, providing care for seriously ill loved ones.

The mission of Hospice of Orleans is to embrace those facing advanced illness with optimal levels of comfort, compassion and expertise.

This care can be home-based, in the Martin-Linsin Residence, or in nursing homes and hospitals. Patients and families who choose Hospice of Orleans are supported by an experienced and compassionate team of professionals who collaboratively with the patient, family, and their attending physician to create an individualized plan of care tailored to the patient’s and family’s needs, the Chamber said.

“Not only are the patient’s medical care needs addressed, their spiritual, emotional and psychosocial needs are also identified and supported,” said Jack Burris, last year’s community service winner.

“Many people do not realize that Hospice of Orleans offers a comprehensive continuum of care through the Transitions program, Supportive Care program, and hospice services,” Burris said, reading the citation for Hospice.

These programs offer support to a patient and family all along their journey starting from the time a person is diagnosed with a serious or life limiting illness, throughout treatment, and if needed, when a person is no longer seeking treatment but looking for comfort care, according to the citation.

Hospice services are made possible not only by the professionals that Hospice employs, but the 150 volunteers that contribute almost 6,000 hours per year, collectively adding to the flexibility, cost effectiveness and comprehensiveness of the services provided, Hospice officials told the Chamber.

Hartway asked the group at the awards presentation how many of them have had loved ones served by Hospice and nearly everyone rose their hand.

“Their reach is so impressive,” Hartway said.

Agribusiness of the Year – Navarra’s Farm Market and Greenhouses

Amanda Mrzywka and her brother Markus Mrzywka have pushed through challenges to have Navarra’s Farm Market and Greenhouses poised for the future.

A brother and sister have been recognized by the Chamber for their work in overcoming obstacles and expanding services at Navarra’s Farm Market and Greenhouses.

Amanda and Markus Mrzywka, who are siblings, are partners at Navarra’s, which has been on Eagle Harbor Road since 1988. Jim and Rita Navarra started the greenhouses and farm market on the corner of Gaines Basin Road and Route 31.

The business has stayed in the family. Markus, Amanda and their sister Jenna grew up helping at the greenhouses, whether it was transplanting the plugs, watering, assisting customers or loading the trucks for market. They were always there to aid in the family business.

They miss their uncle Paul Navarra, who passed away in March 2017. In the middle of his passing, the family lost all 6 greenhouses to a windstorm.

“We had to quickly pull together on a united front to keep the season going,” Amanda Mrzywka said. “We were rebuilding the greenhouses and transplanting the entire season as well as making sure the plants were staying watered and being fertilized.”

Markus and Amanda became partners in the business. They switched their entire market setup for the public, put in a building with gifts, built a new greenhouse where they hold classes and handle orders.

The siblings expanded the farmers market with their own locally grown produce and put in a sign that connects to the new parking lot, established in 2018. They also have taken on seeding for many florists and businesses in our area, the Chamber said.

This year Navarra’s Farm Market and Greenhouse was featured on the cover of the Harris Seeds Ornamental Growers catalog, highlighting one of the few greenhouses left in Western NY to start almost all of the plants from seed. Navarra’s grows the flowers in Albion and Medina’s hanging baskets and pots.

This year with Covid-19, customers responded when Navarra’s opened on April 27 for the season, with Navarra’s helping people get ready for spring.

Hidden Gem Award – Ernst’s Lake Breeze Marina

Gatlen Ernst and his wife Danielle accept the Hidden Gem Award for their marina at Point Breeze, a business which is important for charter boat captains and the fishing industry.

The Chamber last year started a new honor, the Hidden Gem Award, for a business that is important to the local tourism industry.

The Chamber is recognized Ernest’s Lake Breeze Marina with the award in 2020. Gatlen Ernest, the marina owner since 2014, has twice needed to respond to very high Lake Ontario water levels. He raised docks to help boaters get their vessels in the water.

This year there wasn’t flooding like in 2017 and 2019, but Ernst faced Covid-19 and managed to keep the marina open so charter boat captains and the fishing industry could continue to welcome visitors.

Ernst, since buying the marina in 2014, has combined it with a neighboring site, joining the staff and making them flow together, the Chamber said.

“The marina has a great deal to offer the Orleans County and surrounding communities,” said Amy Sidari, owner of the Cabaret at Studio B in Albion, which was last year’s winner. “Charter boats await anyone who would like to take on the fight of reeling in a salmon off the shores of Lake Ontario.”

There also is a quaint café with a deck overlooking Oak Orchard River for people to enjoy breakfast and lunch while taking in the scenery.

Six fully furnished cottages are nestled on the property to accommodate anyone who would like to get away for a night, weekend or even a week. Docks await those with boats for fishing or playing on the water. Mechanics are at the ready to repair and maintain boats and keep people on the water. There is a store full of parts and supplies so people can keep their boats maintained, according to the Chamber citation.

During the flooding in 2017 and 2019, Ernst faced the challenges and stayed positive.

“His customers and employees saw how driven he was and were quick to do whatever he needed in order to ensure the survival of the marina,” the Chamber said. “He kept everyone’s morale up even at a time when his own livelihood was at risk. Once he made sure the docks were taken care of Gatlen went on to start working on the improvements he had promised his customers.”

Ernst has also renovated a new cottage to increase lodging options.

This year the marina was closed temporarily by the state due to Covid restrictions. When Ernst was given the Ok to open for the season in April, he quickly went to work getting customers’ boats in the water. His employees nominated him for the Chamber award.

“He is always quick to jump in and help his employees whether on the job or off,” they wrote to the Chamber. “He buys lunch for us on our birthdays and is always quick to say thank you just because we did our job. His positive attitude influences the way we all do our jobs. He works hard and never asks any of us to do anything he isn’t willing to do himself.”

County Employer of the Year – CRFS

Steve Mowers (left), president of CRFS, and Sean Casher, human resources director for CRFS, accept the award during the recognition program on Thursday night. The Employer of the Year is an award presented by the Orleans County Job Development Agency.

Claims Recovery Financial Services (CRFS) in Albion has undergone a significant transformation as a result of the pandemic. The company works in post-foreclosure mortgage industry. Right there aren’t many foreclosures due to a moratorium in New York and many states.

CRFS has about 150 employees in Albion. In March, employees started to work 100 percent remotely at not at the East Avenue location. The company is planning to return to the main office location soon, if the Covid cases don’t continue to spike.

Steve Mowers, the CRFS president, praised the employees for their flexibility and their work ethic.

“If it wasn’t for our employees we probably wouldn’t be in business,” Mowers said at the Chamber event. “This shouldn’t be the employer of the year award, but the employees of the year award.”

The company was praised for its accomplishments in 2020, which have it better positioned for the future.

Some of those achievements include:

• CRFS underwent a 100% conversion to remote work place back in March of 2020, with deployment of workstations at the employee level, and establishment of IT infrastructure to support remote desktop environment. Before 2020 that would not have been possible, and minimized the potential impact to staffing.

• CRFS refined the process related to the sales side of the business, from closing new business, to training efforts in developing participative e-Learning for our remote workforce, to staffing individuals from both in the local area, and around the country, and ultimately having a plan to return the majority of our workforce back to work in anticipation of future business volumes.

• The company developed a new compensation plan, and daily productivity reporting, to measure and incentivize production performed in remote environment, while coming up with innovative ways to engage the remote staff.

• CRFS utilized federal PPP funds to extend active employment during the initial shut down phase until funds were extinguished, allowing those individuals to grow their skill level anticipated future business volumes.

• The company used the NYS Workshare plan where the workforce underwent a 20% reduction in hours. That allowed CRFS to prevent an additional 20% of individuals from being placed on full furlough.

• Renegotiated leased facilities to resize and repurpose to the new remote-based strategy to remain within Orleans County for the foreseeable future.

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