Spark Plug Awards honor local notables

HOUGHTON – Several of the people and businesses that help catalyze progress in the Copper Country were honored Thursday night at the Keweenaw Spark Plug Awards.

The Keweenaw Chamber of Commerce and Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance along with co-sponsor Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation SmartZone organized the event. Any KEDA or Chamber member could submit Spark Plug Award nominations, which were then reviewed by executives from the three organizations.

Hancock businessman and former State Rep. Mike Lahti won the Person of the Year award, which could be voted on by the entire community. KEDA Executive Director Phil Musser praised Lahti’s accomplishments in business, including the rehabilitation of structures such as the Scott Building in Hancock and Citizens Bank building, and the renovation of the former Morrison Elementary School building in Calumet for business, retail and apartment use. As a state representative, Lahti provided strong support for economic development and was a catalyst for the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University.

“He is the kind of person you want to sit down and have a cup of coffee with and talk about community issues,” Musser said.

Lahti appreciated the honor.

“I get a kick out of visualizing something and then working its way to its conclusion,” he said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a kick. But you can’t do that without good staff, and I have that, a supportive family, and a really smart wife. A lot of things I run by her, and she’ll say (disapproving face). Sometimes I’ll do it anyway. It’s usually bad … Thanks for everything, it’s really a pleasure to live here.”

The Sparkplug Award for community development went to Stephan Olsson, president of the Wickley Agency. Presenter Karyn Olsson said his actions over the past year have helped put the Chamber on stronger financial footing, and done community outreach on changes in health care laws. He has also helped to spearhead development and organize projects in downtown Hancock.

Stephan Olsson thanked the community for coming to the aid of his 4-year-old daughter, Ana, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in October. Ana is in good condition, Olsson said, and “probably at home tearing up the basement right now.”

“You have no idea how good this community really can be,” he said. “We’re so humbled and honored with the outreach that we felt, from emails, to direct contact, to things that were going on. Just an overwhelming, wonderful and humbling blanket of goodness.”

Winning the transformation award was Peninsula Powder Coating of Baraga, a 20-employee business that reinvented itself and developed a new customer base. Owner Brian Baccus commended the way his company dealt with the loss of a major client.

“I’m proud of everyone we have at our company for rebounding, and just not giving in and still being here today,” he said.

Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital won the teamwork award. The hospital put together a rigorous service excellence program for its 400 employees to respond to the growing complexity of health care.

“I’m proud to be associated with all these folks, and everyone who comes in every day to do the work they do,” said Aspirus Chief Executive Officer Chuck Nelson.

The innovation award went to Talon Research of Hancock, which developed BridgeGuard, an infrared bridge inspection technology. Owners Jay and Dorothy Ruohonen accepted the award. Jay said community support has been invaluable to the company. And although he is the public face of the company, he said not to overlook his wife’s contributions,

“We would not be here if it wasn’t for Dorothy,” he said.

Portage Health received the award for quality. Presenter Jay Ringler said a national survey put Portage Health 10 percentage points above the national average and eight percentage points above the state average in service excellence.

“This company has numerous customers coming through their doors day and night, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “This company has been recognized for providing what they emphasize: safety, continuous improvement and communication.”

MTEC SmartZone received the growth award. The SmartZone has attracted companies such as Dematic and ControlTec, adding at least 52 jobs to the area in the past year.

SmartZone CEO Marilyn Clark recalled her father’s past as a “necessity entrepreneur” at his dairy farm in Chassell.

“I am really excited about having an opportunity to run an organization that creates those kinds of opportunities for other companies and entrepreneurs in our community,” she said.