Kalispell Chamber Recognizes Local Leaders Amid Unprecedented Growth

The 117th annual banquet featured a rebranding announcement and a posthumous "Businessperson of the Year" award to Jerry Meerkatz

By Skye Lucas
The Kalispell Parkline Trail runs through Kalispell on Aug. 19, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce recognized local leaders during its 117th annual Grand Event on Nov. 10, honoring local attorney Tom Esch with its oldest and most prestigious award for his work facilitating the Kalispell Core Area Development and Parkline Trail projects.

In addition to handing out the 50th iteration of its “Community Legacy” (formerly “Great Chief”) award to Esch, the Chamber also unveiled its new community brand and mantra, “Discover Kalispell – Venture Boldly.”

“As the Chamber looks ahead to the future, Venture Boldly will be at the heart, mission, and strategy of what we do,” said Lorraine Clarno, the president and CEO of the Chamber.

The rebranding campaign accompanies the Chamber’s new leadership in Clarno, as well as its newfound aspirations, she said. Clarno joined the Chamber in November 2020 and characterized the city of Kalispell as blossoming amid valley-wide growth. Numerous projects are underway to help chart that growth while rejuvenating the core of the city, such as the multi-use Parkline Trail and the proposed Charles Hotel, all of which point to the downtown hub’s future expansion. 

“Whether it’s attracting new talent to our mountain town, developing a strong cultural hub in downtown or putting the wellbeing of our community at the center of what we do Venture Boldly will be our guiding light,” Clarno said.

The Chamber also recognized other community leaders representing various facets of Kalispell’s vibrancy and economy. Nominations from the community guided the Chamber and their selection of this year’s recipients, according to Clarno.

The “Businessperson of the Year” award was given posthumously to Jerry Meerkatz, whose tragic death in September jolted the local business community and occurred just after his retirement as CEO from Montana West Economic Development (MWED). In the five years he spent at MWED, Meerkatz helped spur economic development in Kalispell following a 35-year career working at several technology companies, including Compaq and Hewlett-Packard.

“The loss of Jerry was absolutely profound for so many and for all of us who called him a colleague, mentor and friend,” Clarno said. “He was an incredibly warm and forward-thinking man. He loved his community, friends, and family. I know he had no intention of slowing down and planned to continue to be involved and engaged in making our town an even better place in retirement.”

The Chamber recognized the Samaritan House with its inaugural nonprofit-of-the-year award, calling the homeless shelter “an exemplary organization in our community for over 25 years.”

“We are honored to present Samaritan House with the first nonprofit of the year award. Their impact on our community is tremendous and their planned growth and expansion will serve our most vulnerable citizens,” Clarno said.

Other recipients included Lizzy Sheeran, who took home the Rising Star Award for her work at Immanuel Lutheran Communities for the past two years; Noreen Cady, who received the Community Spirit Award for demonstrating volunteerism in the valley in her professional role with Parkside Credit Union; Western Building Center, which won the large business of the year award for its role serving the community for nearly 75 years while employing a staff of almost 400; and Waters Edge Winery and Bistro, which Angela Zuba opened in March 2020 just as the pandemic arrived in western Montana, and was honored as small business of the year.