The PA Wilds Champion Awards are given out annually as part of the PA Wilds Conservation Landscape movement, a ground-breaking partnership that began in 2003 to grow the region's outdoors industry in a way that creates jobs, diversifies local economies, inspires stewardship and improves quality of life.
The Pennsylvania Wilds, one of the state's 11 official tourism regions, covers about a quarter of the Commonwealth and includes the counties of Warren, McKean, Potter, Tioga, Lycoming, Clinton, Cameron, Elk, Forest, Clarion, Jefferson, Clearfield and the northern part of Centre county.
The region is known for its more than 2 million acres of public land, and also boasts two National Wild & Scenic Rivers, some of the darkest skies in the country and the largest wild elk herd in the Northeast. Visitors spend an estimated $1.7 billion in the region each year, according to the most recent statistics.
This year's PA Wilds Champions hail from all corners of the region and their awards reflect values promoted through the landscape work: partnerships, creativity, stewardship, giving back, creating new opportunities and local leadership.
"The people and communities across the Pennsylvania Wilds contribute in many ways to this exciting Conservation Landscape Initiative," said Jim Weaver, Chair of the PA Wilds Planning Team, which organizes the awards. "By identifying and celebrating the wonderful work that is being done across the region the PA Wilds Team hopes to inspire others to catch and harness the enthusiasm that is the essence of our rural communities."
A full list of the 2016 PA Wilds Champion are BELOW. The awardees will be recognized at the PA Wilds Annual Dinner & Awards Banquet April 28 at the Red Fern in St. Marys, Pa.
Special guests at this year's dinner will include Cindy Dunn, Secretary of the PA Department of Conservation & Natural Resources; Dennis Davin, Secretary of the PA Dept. of Community & Economic Development; and PennDOT Deputy Secretary Toby Fauver. This year's theme is "Celebrating Our Public Lands," and will include a keynote by Marci Mowery, President of the PA Parks & Forest Foundation. West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund is this year's dinner sponsor. Networking will begin at 4 p.m., program starts promptly at 5 p.m.
2016 PA Wilds Champion Award Winners
Outstanding Leader Award- James H. and Shirley A. Maguire Family, Lock Haven, PA - Clinton County
"Success is just disguised hard work," says Jim Maguire, patriarch to now four generations of Maguires who call Clinton County home. From logger and land developer, to restaurant owner and operator, to volunteers, the Maguire Family has made a significant mark on the region, one that is founded on their love of the natural resources and sense of community that make up the Pennsylvania Wilds.
The Maguires are probably best known in tourism circles for Restless Oaks Restaurant, a white pine and oak building with collectables on the walls that the family built in 1984. The restaurant has served thousands of visitors with its rustic charm, down-home food and warm service and was one of the first to start using the PA Wilds logo, back in the early 2000s, placing it prominently on their business sign along busy Route 220.
The Maguires have been staunch supporters and promoters of tourism and economic development initiatives on the eastern side of the region, including promoting the Pine Creek Rails-to-Trails system, local chainsaw carving exhibitions, and various beautification and clean-up projects. If they aren't the ones directly involved in a project, they are always willing to help, lending everything from a place to meet and discuss, to financial or volunteer support, to expertise learned from their many business and community ventures over the past 50 years. The family has a keen sense for business, a love of nature and history, and the understanding that giving back to their community is important.
Great Places Award - City of Warren
Warren, PA - Warren County
The City of Warren is located at the confluence of two recognized water trails, the National Wild & Scenic Allegheny River and PA's 2015 River of the Year, Conewango Creek. It is also a gateway to the Allegheny National Forest, another major attraction of the Pennsylvania Wilds region, and a Route 6 Heritage community with a rich oil and lumber history. In addition to having a river running through it, downtown Warren boasts more than 600 historic structures in 25 architectural styles, including the Struthers Library Theatre, one of the country's oldest theatrical venues. Several businesses display the Pennsylvania Wilds logo or participate in the Wilds Cooperative of PA, which helps visitors find locally-made products. The city itself recently spearheaded an effort that saw dozens of PA Wilds and Route 6 flags hung from street lamps downtown. A new "Walkable Warren" project, which includes interpretive kiosks, helps connect these many assets for the walking and cycling public.
Warren also has a record for warm hospitality. In 2015, for example, the City of Warren was selected through a competitive bid process to host the statewide Greenway & Trails Summit. Many local people and organizations came together to make the event a success. And a success it was - the best attended in the event's history, according to officials. While the Summit was a one-time event, people seemed ready to return.
"Warren PA is my pick again," one attendee said. "There is a lot of variety in the outdoor trail types. The PA Wilds and the National Forest hiking were superb as was the motorized trail system. It might be hard to beat that anywhere else in PA."
A downtown business owner said many attendees stopped into his store. "They all mentioned the outstanding conference, and how beautiful and nice Warren is. I was struck by how each ... was filled with positive thoughts and interests for the future of our area."
Conservation Stewardship Organization Award - Bucktail Watershed Association
The Bucktail Watershed Association (BWA) is a group of citizens united to promote wise watershed stewardship of property and stream banks in the Driftwood Branch and First Fork of the Sinnemahoning Creek watersheds.
This volunteer group has accomplished many projects, including placing watershed educational signs and maps at state parks and schools, planting streamside forest buffers and doing stream restoration projects, organizing stream and roadside garbage cleanups, and treating miles of stream banks and acres of forests for invasive plants.
Currently, BWA is working to control invasive plant species such as mile-a-minute vine, Japanese knotweed, tree of heaven, Japanese barberry and buckthorn. Since 2009, the BWA has worked with over 180 landowners in Potter and Cameron counties to treat 42 (gross) miles of stream banks to control Japanese knotweed.
The BWA has also been very aggressive in treating mile-a-minute vine on a site west of Emporium, and along the Driftwood Branch above Sterling Run. The group has also been working with the PA Game Commission and private landowners at the Elk-Cameron County line, to control buckthorn, treating almost 1,000 acres of forest. The BWA has also been working to eradicate small, scattered populations of tree of heaven and Japanese barberry in the watershed.
Conservation Stewardship Individual Award - Jim Leonard
Weedville, PA -Elk County
Jim Leonard has done great work for the environment without receiving one cent for his efforts. Leonard runs what is essentially a one-man glass recycling operation in Elk County. He pays for the dumpster out of his pocket and uses his own vehicles to get the glass and other materials from the dumpster to their final destination, often to Brockway Glass. The glass he gets from the local glass collection center is often mixed together (even though the colors are clearly marked). It is a mountain of work and it has been going on for decades! The amount of recyclables he's kept out of landfills is absolutely staggering. One photo shows a drum of crushed glass weighing more than 500 lbs. Another shows the full dumpster holding 80 barrels or 20 tons. Leonard has inspired many local people and those in nursing homes to recycle long before recycling was even thought of for communities.
Great Design Award - Subway New Bethlehem
New Bethlehem, PA - Clarion County
Tim Murray was the owner of six Subways in Armstrong and Clarion counties when he decided to build a seventh store a few feet from the popular Redbank Valley Trail, 2014's 'PA Trail of the Year,' in New Bethlehem.
Murray contacted the PA Wilds early on in the project, noting use of the PA Wilds Design Guide and his desire to tie into the regional brand through outdoor interpretive signage at the site. Murray built the new Subway different than traditional stores, with an open ceiling plan, shake shingles to give it a rustic look, and solar panels on the roof. The building's stone siding was sourced locally, as were the construction crews. He hung a keystone over the store's entrance. Murray is also planning to do outdoor seating to court Redbank Valley Trail users, and also wants to do interpretive signage that explains how the trail is part of the larger outdoor recreation destination of the Pennsylvania Wilds.
It is tremendous to see businesses building to fit the landscape like this. Too often we see chains do the minimum in terms of design - a cement box or something along those lines. Communities can ask for something more inspired, and often times will get it if they do. As Murray has demonstrated, business owners can also spearhead more inspired designs. And it makes business sense to do so: no doubt he is going to have more trail customers because he did.
Murray and his Subway are now being considered as a case study for the new edition of the PA Wilds Design Guide, slated to come out this summer.
Member of the Year Award- Deborah Pontzer
2016 PA Wilds Team Member of the Year is Deborah Pontzer. Pontzer is chair of the PA Wilds Planning Team's Outreach Committee. As anyone on the Team can tell you, this is one of the group's most active committees, charged as it is with some of the most visible aspects of the Wilds work - overseeing our annual dinner and awards banquet, our online and print resources for communities, our community workshops and the like.
Year in and year out, Pontzer has taken these massive projects on with grace and gusto, always going the extra mile to get great speakers, to involve as many partners as possible, and to seek out the greatest skills and talents within our budgets so as to best serve our communities.
Under Pontzer's leadership, the annual dinner has grown from an afternoon luncheon to a sold-out evening event that attracts people from around the region who share the vision and spirit of the Wilds work. She has helped make this important regional networking event sustainable by incorporating ticket sales and sponsorships to offset the cost of putting it on. And she has helped launch, shape and grow the PA Wilds Champion Awards, which have been critical to building understanding and pride in the work being done by so many residents and organizations across the region related to nature tourism. She has also help guide and grow the business development component of the Wilds work, sharing her insights, networks and time to advance many of the Wilds' business development efforts and endeavors, be they grant applications or strategic partnerships or approaches to complicated projects.
Artisan of the Year - Steve Getz, Lock Haven, PA - Clinton County
Steve Getz is an accomplished artist, designer and arts advocate who has championed arts efforts at the local and regional level, including working on behalf of the PA Wilds.
An accomplished painter and designer whose work has earned many recognitions and appeared in galleries, museums and other collections, Getz is probably best known among the Wilds network as one of the faces of the Station Gallery, which he and others on the Clinton County Arts Council transformed from an abandoned train depot to a stunning gallery that hosts thoughtful - and very well attended -- art shows throughout the year. He has also been instrumental in organizing arts events and festivals, such as Clinton County Arts Council's Harvest Days and the upcoming Lock Haven JAMS festival in August.
Perhaps lesser known is that behind the scenes, Getz volunteers on behalf of the PA Wilds Artisan Trail and is a champion of the Pennsylvania Wilds brand. The Artisan Trail has gone through significant changes over the last few years, including a major strategic planning process in 2015 that is repositioning the program for long-term growth and under a new brand identity, the Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania. Steve has been there at every turn to talk through concepts and ideas, to host events, and to explain changes to current and potential artisans, trail sites and partners. Steve has understood from the beginning that a big regional arts-related business development program doesn't just come out of the box fully formed. It has to be built, brick by brick, and that it takes a lot of people contributing to make that happen in a meaningful and sustainable way.
Business of the Year Award- Flickerwood Wine Cellars
Kane, PA - McKean County
Located near Kane, in McKean County, Flickerwood Wine Cellars opened in 2000 and has pretty much been expanding ever since, adding employees at both their main branch in Kane and at their Tasting Rooms in Kennett Square and Oxford, Pa.
Flickerwood co-owner Ron Zampogna made wine his entire life. After nearly four decades with the US Forest Service, he retired and his kids convinced him and Mom they should go into business. The entire family now works at the winery. Tourists make up a large part of their foot traffic. In their neck of the woods, the historic Kinzua Viaduct at Kinzua Bridge State Park are a major draw.
When a tornado ripped part of the historic Kinzua Viaduct down in 2003, Flickerwood crafted a semi-sweet wine called "Tribute" and donated a portion of sales, more than $3000 total, to the Kinzua Bridge Foundation, a nonprofit. In 2013, Flickerwood created another called "Kinzua Journey," a semi-sweet white blend, which also celebrated the Kinzua Viaduct and its history, and donated more than $1000 in proceeds to their local visitor bureau to help promote the state park and surrounding area.
Flickerwood Wine Cellars has also been very active in promoting the Pennsylvania Wilds region and brand. The winery is part of the Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania, and was one of the first businesses in the region to put the Wilds logo on their business sign. They were also one of the first to sign up to use the Wilds logo on a saleable product, launching their semi-sweet PA Wilds-branded "Wilderness Red" wine in 2012. A portion of proceeds on all sales of Wilderness Red now go to support the PA Wilds Conservation Landscape work, another great ongoing contribution.
Inspiring Youth Award - Marlene Lellock
Punxsutawney, PA - Jefferson County
Since she began her involvement, Marlene Lellock has taken the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center to new heights and helped to develop an educational and recreational attraction that is equal to none. The Discovery Center now provides a mix of interactive exhibits that are entertaining and educational for both youths and adults from the PA Wilds region and across the country.
Marlene has a long history of work in and around her community. She currently serves on the PA Great Outdoors board, and her insights have provided the organization with many wonderful ideas to help promote tourism within the counties of Cameron, Clarion, Jefferson, Elk, and Forest. She also serves on the "Visit Punxsutawney" group that works to promote local tourism projects and visitation. Marlene very rarely makes decisions based solely on her own interests or the interests of the Weather Discovery Center, but rather on the interests of the entire area. She is a prime example of someone who thinks on a large scale and puts the interests of others before her own.
In the immediate sense, the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center has provided employment and internship opportunities to many individuals. It has become a destination of its own, drawing people from the region who then also visit Punxsutawney's other attractions. With Marlene's help, the Weather Discovery Center has become a resource for Boy and Girl Scouts, a field trip destination for schools in the region, and a prime tourist attraction, not just during Groundhog Day, but also throughout the year.
Event of the Year Award - Ridgway Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous Ridgway, PA - Elk County
The Ridgway Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous has grown to be one of the biggest attractions in the Pennsylvania Wilds during the month of March. Chainsaw Carver Rick Boni and his wife Liz, the event organizers, attract carvers from around the globe, which in turn brings visitors to the event from all over the eastern U.S. In 2016, more than 45,000 people came to Elk County to see chainsaw carvers in action and to attend the auction at the end of the festival.
Various non-profits are given display space during the Rendezvous for education and fund raising purposes, and the event gives many tourism-related businesses an important boost during the shoulder winter season. Hotels, B&B's, cabins, restaurants and retailers all see increased business during this event, which has also sparked community pride.
Best Brand Ambassador Award - Stephanie Distler
Johnsonburg, PA - Elk County
Before there was a 'Best Brand Ambassador' award, Stephanie Distler was championing the Pennsylvania Wilds brand and pushing the envelope on how private-sector partners could leverage it in the marketplace.
A PA Wilds Juried Artisan and founding member of the PA Wilds Artisan Trail, Stephanie was one of the first artisans to align her hand-forged jewelry designs with our regional brand. She didn't stop there. Stephanie was also the first Juried Artisan to create a line of PA Wilds-branded products - a jewelry line. This was before there was a PA Wilds Licensing Program to encourage this sort of thing. Indeed, Stephanie's interest in developing her PA Wilds-branded jewelry line helped fuel efforts to get a Licensing system off the ground for the PA Wilds Conservation Landscape.
The Licensing Program, which officially launched last year, is now an important component in our regional brand development strategy -- and our sustainability strategy. Stephanie was one of the first to sign up, and a portion of her sales from her PA Wilds branded jewelry now go to support the Conservation Landscape effort.
Beyond this, Stephanie has opened her working studio and shared her experiences in educational videos about the Wilds, helping to underscore the importance of the effort to creative small businesses. She continues to inspire and lead numerous promotional efforts, from PA Wilds Pop-Up Shops to our PA Wilds Etsy Street Team to PA Wilds campaigns across numerous social media platforms. On many weekends throughout the year, you can follow Stephanie on social media traveling the region with her family, visiting Artisans and Trail sites and talking to other businesses about the Wilds and how they might get involved. She does this on her own time and dime, and we love her for it, for there is nothing better for a brand than authentic, genuine interactions like this.