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2021 Champions of the PA Wilds Award Winners Announced- The Leader Vindicator

Written by Josh Walzak for the Leader Vindicator on October 7, 2021

The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship (PA Wilds Center) recently announced the recipients of the 2021 Champions of the PA Wilds Awards. These individuals, businesses, events and places from across the region will be honored in a virtual celebration this fall.

The awards are typically distributed during the PA Wilds Center’s Annual Dinner. However, this year’s in-person dinner, originally planned for November 4, has been cancelled due to ongoing COVID-19 risks and concerns. Instead, this year’s Champion Awards will be distributed to winners in small groups and celebrated online to reduce the risks associated with COVID-19. Videos and photos will be shared on social media, including Facebook and Instagram, @thepawilds.

“Each year, our organization recognizes outstanding individuals, organizations, programs, communities and places that exemplify the great work being done across the region to develop nature tourism and the outdoor recreation economy in a way that creates jobs, diversifies local economies, inspires stewardship and improves quality of life. This year will be no different in that regard,” said Ta Enos, Founder and CEO of the PA Wilds Center. “We are so incredibly excited to honor the recipients of these nine awards. The artists, entrepreneurs and volunteers involved in these pursuits have shown pride in our region and commitment to our natural assets and communities. They have also been both resilient and resourceful in the face of the pandemic, traits that are uplifted in our very own brand principles. We hope that the new format for celebrating their achievements will allow even more people to join in the process this year!”

The 2021 Champions of the PA Wilds include:

Artisan of the Year Award: Bill Crowell – Lock Haven, Clinton County

A juried artisan in the Wilds Cooperative of PA (WCO), Bill Crowell uses his creative photography and graphic design skills both professionally and personally to celebrate the PA Wilds region and the beauty, bounty and rural traditions the region is known for. Through his business, Budget Artist, Crowell works with clients ranging from individual families and local sports leagues to those the size of Lock Haven University, documenting the lives and special moments for locals and area visitors. He can often be found attending community events with his camera or delving into creative projects for the community. During the 2020 COVID shutdown, Crowell embarked on a series of "Porchraits" that featured families on their porches surrounded by various household items to comically reflect how they were surviving the pandemic. Previously the photo editor for the local newspaper, Bill has a knack for photographing people and bringing local events and scenery to life. He has won several awards for his photography and graphic design work and often donates use of his photos to local businesses and organizations -- such as Millbrook Playhouse, the Clinton County Visitors Bureau, Downtown Lock Haven Inc. and PA Wilds Center -- in an effort to help promote the area as a place for visitors and residents.

Business of the Year Award: Wolfe's General Store – Slate Run, Lycoming County

Tom and Debbie Finkbiner owned and operated the Wolfe’s General Store at Slate Run, PA on Pine Creek for 45 years and recently sold it to a local couple, Kim and Tom Kozlowski, who will continue to operate both the general store and the famous Slate Run Tackle Shop. The Tackle Shop became a very strong asset for trout fishermen who were attracted from all over the Eastern USA. Tom helped to lead the citizen support for the formal designation of portions of Pine Creek and several other tributary streams as Wild Trout Exceptional Value stream by the PA Fish and Boat Commission. Deb operated and managed the General Store offering all the supplies that campers and fishermen and visitors needed. Together they were a treasure-trove of important information and help for visitors and input to Township and Lycoming County Planning deliberations. They own a home in the Pine Creek Valley just north of Slate Run and can be seen daily helping the new owners at the store. The economic impact for the Pine Creek Valley and even beyond has been measurably enhanced by the Finkbiners' enterprise and gracious demeanor. Tom has advocated to develop a section of Pine Creek now known as “the stretch“ in which trophy trout are stocked in addition to PA Fish and Boat Commission stockings. This has attracted fishermen from all over the country. Tom has formed a 501(c)(3) organization which fishermen can donate to and their mission is to stock above average German brown trout several times during the season.

Best Brand Ambassador Award: Dave Conklin / The Wilds Sonshine Factory – Kane, McKean County

With the creation of The Wilds Sonshine Factory, not only has Dave Conklin incorporated the PA Wilds brand directly into his business; he has trademarked it so that Sonshine will be exclusively grown and produced within the PA Wilds region. The Wilds Sonshine Factory tied the patent for their innovative distilled product to the PA Wilds brand and through a licensing contract will be giving a portion of every bottle sold to support the PA Wilds Center's nonprofit mission in the landscape. A true PA Wilds ambassador, Conklin has spoken about the importance of the PA Wilds on the radio and TV, to elected officials, to other business people and on stage at Public Officials Day. Although "Sonshine" is a distilled product, it is not a typical distillery. The building will serve as an agricultural education center, combining efforts and partnerships from Allegheny Hardwoods Utilization Group (AHUG), Penn State Outreach and Penn State Extension; and the McKean, Elk and Warren County Conservation Districts.

Conservation Stewardship Award: Don Schmidt – DuBois, Clearfield County

A retired mechanical engineer, Don Schmidt is a longtime volunteer for conservation organizations such as Pennsylvania Wildlife Habitat and others. Don works undetected on many of his projects, which can range from spending a day in Quehanna Wild Area with a small group replacing and cleaning Wood Duck and Bluebird boxes on frozen marshes to participating in highway litter cleanups. Don has taken on the responsibility of maintaining an American Chestnut planting site that was done in 2014. Twice a year he trims the overgrowth within the 1-1/4 acre site that has 525 original trees. The site is maintained entirely by weed trimmer as the terrain is far too rough to trim by any other means. He personally supplies the fuel for the trimmers and pays for all the other supplies.

Event of the Year Award: LH JAMS Festival – Lock Haven, Clinton County

The LH JAMS Festival (Lock Haven Jams and Art on Main Street Festival) in just a few years has fast become an exciting asset to the unique stable of festivals enticing music lovers and festival goers to visit Clinton County and the PA Wilds. The LH JAMS committee, partnering with Downtown Lock Haven and Lock Haven University, works year-round to keep the mix of art and entertainment fresh and exciting. It’s all about atmosphere, an exciting experience that leaves with you and draws you back the next year. Exceptional musicians and bands, plein air painting, fine art, crafts, and outdoor cafe-style dining, all on Main Street featuring two stages where the music is constant. It’s a full afternoon of music, art, and entertainment that flows into the evening where jazz and blues fans enjoy combos playing in intimate settings at local establishments, like the Broken Axe, Avenue 209, Odd Fellas, and the patio at Stella A’s.

Great Places Award: Trails at Jakes Rocks – Warren County

The Trails at Jakes Rocks (TAJR), located on the Allegheny National Forest (ANF), currently provides in excess of 30 miles of trail that is optimized for mountain bikes, hiker friendly, and professionally designed and constructed. TAJR has grown to be the single largest continually operating outdoor recreation asset within the ANF. The system provides unique outdoor recreation opportunities for mountain bikers, hikers and trail runners of all ages and ability levels. US Forest Service (USFS) data collection indicates that the TAJR attracted in excess of 15,000 trail users in 2020 alone. The success of the project in attracting new visitors to the region has supported business growth in Warren and McKean Counties as well as facility improvement investments by the USFS. The collaboration between numerous state, federal and local organizations and entities to develop the roughly $3 Million in capital investment is unique to this region. Administrative and "boots on the ground" partners involved in the development of Jakes Rocks include the Warren County Development Association; USFS, ANF; Pennsylvania Kinzua Pathways (PKP); Leadership Warren County; Warren County Commissioners; Northern Allegheny Mountain Bike Association (NAMBA); Western New York Mountain Bike Association (WYNMBA); and Northwest Commission. Financing partners include Appalachian Regional Commission, the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Warren County Corporate and Foundation community.

Great Design Award: Mickayla Poland – St. Marys, Elk County

Mickayla Poland at PA Made LLC is a graphic designer and painter who has embraced local wildlife in her art. She is known for her love for Pennsylvania, Elk County, and the PA Wilds because her business is all about supporting and showcasing subjects from the Commonwealth. Much of her original artwork features the wildlife of the area. She has also worked with the Elk County Conservation District on projects and works with local children to help them promote their community. For example, she recently completed a series of storm drain murals for the Elk County Conservation that will help educate people about the importance of keeping stormwater and runoff water clean.

Inspiring Youth Award: Paul Lilja and the Black Forest Conservation Association – Potter County

Paul Lilja and the Black Forest Conservation Association have been organizing a week-long Junior Conservation School for over 40 years. This week-long summer camp gets students involved in a wide array of outdoor skills classes and conservation lessons throughout the region. Home base for campers is outside of Coudersport at the Black Forest Conservation Club. The week consists of field trips to locations across the region to learn about conservation issues and conservation careers. One location is Western Pennsylvania Conservancy's Bennett Branch Forest where they learn about acid mine discharge and its treatment.

Outstanding Leader: Julie Brennan – Clinton County

Julie Brennan has held the post of Clinton County Tourism Director for six years. As a tourism and outdoor recreation advocate, she routinely promotes the PA Wilds. Julie is an active participant in many boards and committees designed to help the county thrive as a destination and a great place to live. Her advocacy on behalf of the Bald Eagle Valley Trail -- a planned extension of the major Pine Creek Rail Trail from Jersey Shore to Lock Haven -- led to the commitment of $20,000 annually from hotel tax revenue for trail maintenance. Julie advocated for and secured PA Wilds "Elk Scenic Drive" signage for the Route 120 Corridor from Lock Haven to Emporium. In addition, Julie has been closely involved with several events critical to the regional economy, including the LH JAMS Festival and several trail races such as the world-class Boulder Beast, Hyner Challenge, Great Island Triathlon, and Frozen Snot. When all events were cancelled due to COVID, instead of taking a break, she morphed her weekly newsletter into a daily “Moving Forward” update that gave vital information on available programs to assist cultural, hospitality, tourism and other businesses and organizations with their economic survival. It collected federal, state, and local program information and guidance into one place for a convenient easy read. Now that things are opening back up for tourism, she is producing both newsletters.

“This was another challenging year for the Board of Directors tasked with reviewing nominations, as there were so many inspiring nominees,” said Enos. “The board encourages those who submitted nominations that were not selected this year to consider submitting again next year.”


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