Janice Thomson NOTL Citizen of the Year
Lord Mayor Pat Darte gives NOTL Chamber of Commerce executive director Janice Thomson a Citizen of the Year award at the Spirit of Niagara ceremony held Tuesday at Queen's Landing to awknowledge individuals and businesses that make a significant contribution to their community. Although Thomson organizes the ceremony, her award was a well-kept secret until Darte's announcement. Penny Coles/Niagara Advance
Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce executive director Janice Thomson thought Lord Mayor Pat Darte was going off-script a little when he was handing out the Citizen of the Year Award at Queen's Landing Tuesday, but she wasn't surprised - until she heard him say her name.
Through an elaborate and clever deception, Darte, along with Chamber of Commerce president Rainer Hummel and past-president Ray Guy, managed to catch Thomson completely off-guard at the annual event the chamber organizes to recognize business and community leaders.
"Notwithstanding the input to the selection committee by the executive director of the chamber, a sub-committee of the award selection has awarded the Lord Mayor’s Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year Award to Janice Thomson," said Darte.
He spoke of the international recognition she has drawn to the town, and her many appointments that speak to her "conciliatory leadership skills," including being named chair of the Tourism Partnership of Niagara, serving two terms as chair of the Bridge Commission, and a second term as chair of the Niagara Parks Commission.
Last fall, Thomson received a different kind of accolade - she was knighted by the Order of St George, in recognition of her service to the community.
Her obvious shock and humility at being named Citizen of the Year left no doubt that the attempt at secrecy had been successful - even to the extent that Ward Simpson, a previous winner drafted to be the stand-in until the last possible minute to make the surprise feasible, was surrounded by his wife and family who had come to support him, thinking he was once again going to be recognized with the award.
"Oh my," said Thomson, attempting to reign in her emotions as she stepped forward to respond.
"I'm so surprised, so touched. I really can't believe it," she said.
Receiving the award gave her an understanding of how past recipients must have felt when recognized for their contributions to their community, she added.
"For my community, business and personal, to recognize me with this award means so much. It overwhelms me."
Although the chamber ceremony originated with one award to one outstanding citizen, it has grown to acknowledge businesses that have made a significant contribution of the community.
One such award, named after Christopher Newton, recognizes extraordinary vision in business. It went to George Wakil, who bought some farmland in NOTL and on it built a successful tennis complex and then an award-winning hotel, which now totals 220 rooms and includes a spa rated seventh in North America.
Accepting the award for her father, who passed away last year, Jasmine Wakil said he and her mother "are here in spirit and watching from above, with hearts full of love and pride."
When her father purchased 13 acres in NOTL 50 years ago, he planned to sell it, she said. But when he couldn't find anyone to buy his piece of property in the middle of nowhere, he began to develop it himself, turning 13 into a lucky number for him.
"It must have been meant to become an iconic landmark, the unofficial gateway to Niagara-on-the-Lake," she said.
An award in memory of the late Olde Angel Inn owner Peter Ling, recognizing entrepreneurial spirit, was given to Josh Bice of Bice Builders, a company "dedicated to excellence and building homes with superb craftsmanship, versatility, careful detail and perhaps most important, lasting value," said Ray Guy as he handed out the award to the young businessman Ling knew when he was a student in town.
The Virgil Business Association, celebrating its 50th anniversary, was given an award for community leadership. Hummel praised the group for its annual Virgil Stampede and its many financial contributions to the town, including both arenas, the community centre and a new splash pad in Virgil.
Accepting the award, Phil Leboudec, current president of the VBA, said the work is accomplished as a group, and invited members seated throughout the audience to join him on stage.
As it celebrates 50 years in the community, the VBA "is focused on reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future," he said.
The VBA was started by a group of people who wanted to offer fireworks and a horse show for the community, "and this is the perfect time to do that again," he said, promising the 50th stampede will once again feature fireworks and a horse show - a promise made public for the first time Tuesday, referring to the fact that there haven't been horses at the event for many years.
Company of the Year went to Pillitteri Estate Winery, "an excellent example of a family business built with tenacity, foresight and a tight connection between all family members," said Thomson.
Although Gary and Lena Pilltteri were not able to attend, the family was well-represented on stage, led by their son Charlie, who said the company was built on the values of family and community.
"When we get back from traveling, we kiss the ground we walk on - we live in the best place in the world. We love it here - all of it."
The Celia Liu Award for excellence in hospitality was handed out to Vintage Hotels, accepted by president Bob Jackson, who said it was a very special award to receive.
"Celia meant so much to so many people in this room," said Jackson, adding it was a privilege to receive an award in her name.
The President's Award was presented by Hummel to two people, Klaus Reif of Reif Estate Winery and Eva Kessel of the Grand Victorian, the historic inn beside the winery, for a partnership of businesses that honours heritage and agriculture.
Reif said he could have settled anywhere in the world, but chose Canada, and loves being part of the NOTL community. He referred to Kessel as a "business and life partner," and both spoke of the advantages of working together.
It's that partnership, and the receptions she is able to hold because of it, that allow her to continue to restore the historic building, Kessel said.