By Emily Stifler, Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

BIG SKY – Positive and optimistic was how David O’Connor described the atmosphere at the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce annual meeting and awards dinner, held at the Moonlight Lodge on a summery evening June 28.

“I think people’s businesses are starting to come back,” said O’Connor, who is chairman of the Chamber board. “I think the summer tourist season is going better than people thought, and we thought it would go well anyway.”

While many chambers in the U.S. have seen a decline in the last few years, Big Sky’s has continued growing, even through the recession. This last year it had the highest retention of any chamber in Montana, said membership director Robin Brower-McBride. Currently, it has 440 members, and in June received an unprecedented 12 new commitments.

“People are coming out of the woodwork,” she said, crediting the Chamber’s ongoing projects like wayfinding signage and new visitors’ center for “generating quite a buzz.”

In his ‘state of the community’ address, O’Connor discussed the progression of these larger projects, thanked the Big Sky Resort Tax board for its support, and also officially announced the new executive director hire, Kitty Clemens.

“We’re doing a lot of these things as a community,” O’Connor said after the event.

O’Connor, took time to publicly thank all the Chamber staff, including “last but not least,” Brower-McBride, who received a standing ovation. For three months this winter, Brower-McBride was the only Chamber employee. A lot of people would have packed up and left, O’Connor said, but she dug her heels in and got the work done.

Marne Hayes, recipient of the first ever Chet Huntley Distinguished Achievement Award, was the Chamber’s executive director for 10 years until she left in December. Hayes also received a standing ovation.

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Annual awards

Members of the Big Sky Chamber voted for the following awards for the year of 2011/12. Quotes are from nomination forms.

Chet Huntley Distinguished Achievement Award – Marne Hayes
This award is given in recognition of a distinguished individual who has made a profound and long-term contribution to the community of Big Sky.

“Congratulations Marne and thank you for your years of leadership and service at the Chamber.”

Business of the Year – Lone Peak Cinema

“An indoor activity for Big Sky – super necessary for our growth!”

“A business created 100 percent with the community in mind.”

Nominees: Geyser Whitewater, Buck’s T-4, Alpine Property Management, Big Sky Town Center, Bugaboo Café, AllTrips, Moonlight Basin, Grizzly Outfitters.

Community Person of the Year – Ryan Hamilton

“A million behind-the-scenes efforts: park district, wayfinding [signs], entry monument, strategic marketing efforts, bike race, PBR, Big Sky on [Yellowstone National Park] map, hockey, farmers market, centralized recycling, effective lighting plan, and overall a person who sees the big picture of how working to strengthen our community will also make our individual businesses stronger.”

Nominees: David O’Connor, Marne Hayes, Katie Grimm, Eric Ladd, Steve Johnson, Loren Bough, Robin Brower-McBride

Green Business of the Year – Big Sky Shirt Co.

“Green materials, recycled materials and company founded on environmentally sound practices.”

Nominees: Lone Peak Physical Therapy/The Gym, Ophir School, Big Sky Landscaping, AllTrips

Event of the Year – PBR

“Direct benefit to entire community and a lot of fun!”

Nominees: Classical Music Fest, Summer Concert Series, Big Sky XC

Project of the Year – Bozeman – New York direct flight

“Making getting here easier is key to Big Sky’s growth! Also a great show of all entities working together for a common cause.”

Nominees: Wayfinding [signs], Big Sky Parks, Cowboy Hall of Fame, Ophir School, Lone Peak Tram, Visitor Information Center