The Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce held its annual gala at Centennial Hall on Saturday night, bestowing its highest honors during a high-energy and occasionally emotional event.
Hundreds of people attended Juneau’s “formal affair of the year,” a night filled with appreciation for the contributions made by the business community. This year’s theme was “Under the Sea: A Celebration of Our Ocean Industries” with focus on the growing mariculture industry.
“Because we are a maritime community nothing comes here without our roads, which are the water,” Capt. Steve White, master of ceremonies, told the crowd. The room was filled with representatives of smaller companies along with larger mainstay businesses such as cruise lines, Delta and Alaska airlines, barge and logistics companies, and banks and investment firms, to name a few.
White told his share of sea jokes, all of it building up to the awards, which this year included a new honor, Business of the Year. That went to GR Cheeseman Construction for its contribution to saving homes along the Mendenhall River when Suicide Basin flooded in early August.
Leticia McRae, who has single-handedly led a mini-revolution in trash pickup for Juneau, took Citizen of the Year. The Lifetime Achievement award went to Jim and Cecilia Wilcox for decades of giving and volunteerism.
All of the awardees were given standing ovations.
The audience was shown a video of McRae in action, collecting trash around Juneau. She started her Facebook page, “Community Clean Up In Progress,” which now has 1,600 followers, in 2016.
Ami McRae was there to accept the award for her mother Leticia McCrae. She said her mother, who was unaware of the award at that point, would be humbled by the distinction.
At the same time, the younger McRae continued, if people really want to honor her mother they should go out before the first snow with bags and pick up trash for one hour. The comment brought cheers.
McRae continued with comments about the dump, which is owned by Waste Management, a Texas company. The trash company nearly tripled its dump fees early in the year.
“The reality is the people in this room comprise the most powerful people in Juneau,” McRae said. “I want to see every single one of you reach out to the dump and tell them they suck!” She added that the dump needs to lower their fees and increase their hours. If no changes were forthcoming, she said, “the city needs to step up and start one.” Those comments also were met with approval.
Jerry Harmon, who won the Lifetime Achievement Award last year, took the stage to present it to Jim and Cecilia Wilcox this year. He noted the Wilcox couple have been giving to the community for decades. Jim Wilcox served with the U.S. Coast Guard and is a past president of the Southeast Alaska Food Bank, where he also served on the board.
Cecilia Wilcox said she had a bit of advice: “Volunteer. It’s the best thing you can do.” It brought the crowd to its feet.
The most powerful moment came next with the Business of the Year Award, presented by John Blasco, outgoing president of the chamber. He nearly lost his home in the flood and was able to remind people of the nightmare the community faced when the basin above the face of the Mendenhall Glacier released an unexpected torrent of water in early August. He choked up in the process.
“By 11 a.m. the next morning Gene Cheeseman was at my house assessing the river bank and creating a plan to save the condos, to save homes along the river, and to repair and protect the sewer treatment plant for the city,” said Blasco.
Blasco, who is CEO of Anchorage Distillery, praised several Juneau businesses for stepping up in the crisis, naming Tveton Construction, AJC, E.A. Wilkerson, Jake Carte Construction, CDI, Admiralty Construction and Coogan Construction. He said there were others, as well.
But Blasco said Cheeseman was “entrenched.” He “orchestrated the trucking, the blasting, the scheduling of multiple projects all at once.” He also praised Cole Cheeseman for carrying out his father’s “vision” and his skill on the ground building “many, many walls.”
The older Cheeseman came on stage to get the award and nodded in appreciation, but didn’t say anything. Reached later he said it was a total surprise and that he was at a loss for words.
“I didn’t expect anything like that,” he said. “I’m totally grateful. Humbled.”
• Contact Meredith Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 615-3190.