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Chamber director surprised with Little Red Hen Award

by MACKENZIE REISS
Bigfork Eagle | February 17, 2021 2:20 AM

Each year for the past 11 years, the Bigfork Area Chamber of Commerce has recognized a Bigfork local for their efforts to improve the community with the Little Red Hen Award, named after a children’s book that teaches about the value of hard work. The chamber’s board of directors chooses the winner in a blind vote and presents the accolade during the chamber’s annual banquet, which took place virtually on Feb. 11.

Chamber Executive Director Rebekah King is the only one who knows who the winner is in advance of the event and wasn’t surprised to see that they’d chosen Walter Kuhn as this year’s recipient. He was integral in bringing the downtown parking lot to fruition and volunteered on countless other projects. And when a board member insisted on picking up the award plaque, King didn’t think anything of it — it was one less thing on her to-do list.

But when it came time for the presentation of the 12th annual Little Red Hen Award, it wasn’t Kuhn’s name they called out, but hers.

“I had no idea,” King said. “I’m incredibly humbled. I’m very appreciative but ... really, I was just doing my job. I’m lucky that I have a job that allows me to make an impact in the community.”

As executive director of the chamber, King’s job is to be an advocate for local businesses and tourism.

“My job in a day could be helping someone write a business plan, looking for commercial space, putting the itinerary together for someone who is coming to visit …. It just is an everything job,” King explained. “I try to make the role one that is available and flexible to help people however they might need it because businesses aren’t cookie cutter and their needs aren’t cookie cutter.”

While King isn’t one to talk up her own accomplishments, others in the community found the words easily.

Ben Storest, owner of Fieldhead’s Coffee said King helped him apply for a business adaptability grant and is a constant advocate for local businesses, like his.

“She’s been keeping her eyes and ears open for anything to help us out including pointing us at applications for grants, the paycheck protection program, stuff like that,” Storest said. “She’s helping out in any way she can. She’s here often and tries to figure out ways to get us more customers and keep us busy. She’s a huge asset to the community and we’re super happy to have her.”

Paul Mutascio, president of the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork called King “indispensable” to Bigfork and more than deserving of the Little Red Hen Award.

“She takes care of all the street closures for all the special events,she helps coordinate them, she’s constantly downtown putting up fliers. She’s just amazing,” Mutascio said. “Chamber membership has grown and a lot of new events have been put on ... Her energy is boundless, her ideas are great and can she multitask!”

King joined the chamber as the executive director in 2017 and has retained 75 new members, bringing the membership to a total of 400 businesses. She helped bring the Montana Dragon Boat Festival from Lakeside to Bigfork and was instrumental in negotiating with the Flathead County Fairgrounds to allow Bigfork to host the Fourth of July Rodeo.

“I was a member of PETA and a vegetarian for most of my life so for me to be advocating for a rodeo — it was ironic. But it was good for the community and that was the important part,” she said.

Under her leadership, the chamber’s website has grown by leaps and bounds — up from 52,000 homepage visits in 2017 to more than 111,000 in recent history.

It was during the pandemic that her selflessness and flexibility really shined. She was constantly on the lookout for any scrap of news pertaining to businesses and sent out a digest of need-to-know information to keep area proprietors informed on the latest changes or grant opportunities.

“We’re a member driven organization, but during those initial months of COVID, we didn’t care what your status was — we helped everyone — and still do,” she said. “We need every business in Bigfork to be successful. A rising tide floats all boats.”

When the mask mandate began, King was technically off work for the day, but couldn’t just sit back and do nothing. Instead, she headed to the UPS store and printed out a variety of mask-related signs, distributing them to more than 100 businesses over the course of two days.

“Even though they might have been OK then we didn’t know what the next month, or six months would bring,” she said. “Because I had owned a business and I still to this day kind of consider myself a bartender, I felt very connected to everyone and the struggles they were going through.”

King was an entrepreneur herself who left high school early and bought up a number of drive-thru coffee shops. She later spent weekends bartending at Del’s Bar and eventually helped them open a business in Lakeside before working her way up to a management position at the Marina Cay Resort. It was Diane Kautzman, the now president of the chamber board, who encouraged King to apply for the role of executive director.

She got to know the town while working at the Marina Cay, but fell in love with it once she joined the chamber.

“Bigfork truly is the definition of community — if you show up and you try a little bit, you’re accepted,” she said.

And when she’s working weekends or 12 hour days or a combination of the two, she does so alongside what King calls her extended family. That’s what Bigfork is — a place that is welcoming, that rewards hard work and takes care of their own.

“Instead of helping one business as the manager or owner, I get to help all the businesses. It’s the variety and helping something bigger,” King said. “I’m honored. It’s great to know that people appreciate what you do.”

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Bigfork Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rebekah King is pictured at the chamber offices on Monday, Feb. 15. Mackenzie Reiss/Bigfork Eagle