Dave Smith started his own business raising trout in Champaign County, developed a festival that draws hundreds of visitors every fall, and has now been named the winner of this year’s Simon Award by the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce.
Smith owns Freshwater Farms of Ohio, a five-acre facility that produces as much as 100,000 pounds of trout annually. The business also includes a retail store, sells products for residents to manage ponds and water gardens and offers tours that include a petting zoo where visitors can see live sturgeon and an alligator named Fluffy. The business started when Smith purchased an bankrupt chicken farm and founded the aquaculture facility in 1983. Because it took a year to raise the first fish, the farm started out selling melons along the road, Smith said.
But Smith is being honored as much for his contributions to the community as for his business, said Sandi Arnold, executive director of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce. Smith helped lead efforts to restore the historic Gloria Theatre in downtown Urbana, helped develop a Local Food Council for the county and has served as a board member and volunteer for the Monument Square District, which promoted downtown Urbana.
“The hours he invests in the community as well as running his business, they’re mind-boggling to me,” Arnold said of Smith.
He will be honored at the chamber’s annual dinner next week.
Starting a rainbow trout farm in Champaign County was a chance to try some new ideas, Smith said. At the time, he was unaware of any other indoor trout farm operating anywhere in the world. He said he’s been lucky to work with numerous volunteers throughout Urbana and Champaign County who were creative and cared enough about the community to try to make it a better place to live. Working with several other volunteers, Smith also helped start the first farmer’s market in Champaign County years before the push for organic and locally grown foods became popular.
Smith said he was most impressed with other volunteers who have chipped in in various ways to renovate the Gloria Theatre downtown.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m going in a lot of different directions but it all comes back to the core,” Smith said. “What can you do to improve the quality of life and have some fun doing it.”
William Heitman, vice president of commercial lending at Civitas Bank in Urbana, will also be honored with the Volunteer of the Year award during the chamber dinner, Arnold said.
Heitman has donated his time and financial skills to various organizations, including the Cedar Bog Association, the Monument Square District and more recently, the Champaign Economic Partnership, which serves as the economic development arm for the county. But Heitman’s greatest impact may have been in service to families whose relatives are battling with mental illness.
For several years, Heitman has taught a Family to Family program for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Champaign and Logan Counties. Heitman, whose son and wife have suffered from mental illness, works directly with area families who are dealing with the issue.
The biggest thing is (Heitman) has a tremendous heart,” Arnold said. “His heart comes out most with his commitment to NAMI.”
Often, families do not know how to react when a loved one struggles with mental illness, he said. Dealing with the issue in his own family has allowed him to better understand the problems families face.
“I spend quite a bit of time teaching people it’s not your family member behaving that way, it’s the illness,” Heitman said.
Heitman said he is particularly proud of his son Ryan, who has been battling a mental health disorder for 10 years.
“He has taught me more about courage and bravery than I have ever known,” Heitman said.
His daughter Rachel also provided critical support while his job and volunteer activities kept him away from home, Heitman said.
“They’re both the reason I was able to do the things I did,” Heitman said.
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