The Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce held its annual meeting Sept. 25.

David Bergman, Explore Minnesota's travel/tourism representative for the northwest region, spoke to Chamber members. He said tourism is a $15 billion business in the state.

"In Hubbard County, you're talking about $35 million, so we know you're a partner in this," he said. "Every interaction you have as a business owner benefits the state of Minnesota."

Bergman challenged Park Rapids to host a Governor's Deer Hunting Opener.

"I was told this area, last year, was the best area in the state for deer population. Your auto body shops may know that firsthand," he said.

Bergman also mentioned there may funding for special and first-time events in small communities.

According to Chamber President/CEO Butch De La Hunt, there are currently 341 Chamber members. The visitor's center saw 47,161 people come through the door in 2018. The top five reasons that brought visitors to the area were Itasca State Park, family reunions, ATV trails/camping, vacations and fishing.

De La Hunt noted there's a Chamber effort to expand the shoulder seasons by advertising in ATV magazines and identifying Park Rapids as an "ATV Triangle." The Chamber is also targeting younger families in parenting magazines in the Twin Cities corridor, he said.

During the awards portion of the annual meeting, Danielle Norby Lien of ABC Connection earned the Shining Star Award for her leadership and willingness to further the vision of the Chamber of Commerce.

The 2018 Business Excellence Award went to Lamb Weston/RDO Frozen for displaying the values of the Chamber in leadership, workforce, innovation and community.

"Through innovation, this business continues to grow and make a different around our community, the nation and the world," De La Hunt said. "As a large employer in our community, they continue to build a committed workforce to meet the company's needs by empowering employees, providing leadership programs, training and promotional opportunities in order to retain long-time employees."

Molly Luther, owner of The Good Life Cafe and Molly Poppins, won the Chair's Exceptional Individual Award. This award is "bestowed in appreciation for an individual's commitment and service" to the Chamber. Chamber board chair Ed Becker presented the award.

"I'm in awe of this individual," Becker said, noting Luther has "served as community leader on many high-profile projects," such as the Heartland Lakes community branding project.

"Her ability to bring people together is one of her most outstanding assets, and it served the project well. Heartland Lakes has been well-received by many, and future phases of this project are soon to be announced," he said.

Luther said the Heartland Lakes project "made me really aware of how we think of ourselves as a community. I hope that through the Heartland Lakes brand we can bring these communities together and not see ourselves as competing communities but as complementary, because together we're all stronger. If we want to raise the bar for all businesses and residents, we have a much better chance doing that together."

Jeff Davis was named 2018 Chamber Ambassador of the Year. The Park Rapids Convention and Visitors Bureau was recognized for its exemplary dedication to keeping the tourism industry strong, earning the Tourism Award.