Congratulations to the 2022 PA Wilds Champions!
Each year the PA Wilds Center recognizes individuals, groups, organizations, communities, and businesses that in the last year have made significant contributions to help grow and sustainably develop the outdoor recreation economy and nature tourism in the PA Wilds by marrying economic development and conservation goals.
These prestigious awards are typically presented at the Center’s dinner. However, due to COVID-19, the 2021 awards were celebrated in small groups, at the community level with the award winners, county commissioners, and legislators.
Click on the Award titles listed below to jump to that section.
ARTISAN OF THE YEAR
The PA Wilds Artisan of the Year Champion Award honors a PA Wilds Juried Artisan who has gone above and beyond to use their medium and creativity to promote the region or help advance The Wilds Cooperative of PA.
Carol Cillo of Lock Haven, PA (Clinton County)
Carol Cillo was chosen as the 2022 Artisan of the Year for the PA Wilds. Cillo is a fine artist who primarily works with ceramics and acrylics in Clinton County. She participates in the Wilds Cooperative of PA as a Professional Level Juried Artisan. Beyond being an artisan herself, Cillo regularly takes part in regional arts initiatives that have a wide reach for all artists within the PA Wilds. Through her role in the Clinton County Arts Council, she encourages artists such as herself to become rooted in the landscape of the PA Wilds and showcase the area through “creative placemaking.”
BUSINESS OF THE YEAR
The PA Wilds Business of the Year Champion Award honors a new or existing business owner that has taken bold steps to grow their business in a way that embodies what it means to marry conservation and economic development and to offer an authentic experience or product to visitors and residents.
Belle Mercantile of Bellefonte, PA (Centre County)
Belle Mercantile, a Centre County-based marketplace for artisans and aspiring entrepreneurs, was selected as the 2022 Business of the Year. Owners, and wife and husband, Andrea Skirpan and Brian Bonner, opened the store in September of 2020. The hope was to establish a unique destination for visitors to shop, while providing a brick-and-mortar location for local businesses owners searching for a permanent space. In addition to providing a cost-effective space, Belle Mercantile promotes the businesses within through its own advertising efforts while also acting as a customer service representative to handle customer orders and requests. Not only has Belle Mercantile brought new business into the downtown Bellefonte area, but Andrea and Brian, also act as leaders within the business community.
EVENT OF THE YEAR
The PA Wilds Event of the Year Champion Award recognizes a festival, race, art show or other local or regional event in the PA Wilds which through its quality, authenticity and use of the PA Wilds brand has become a regional attraction that is having a positive economic and social impact on the area.
Groundhog Day of Punxsutawney, PA (Jefferson County)
The nationally known Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Jefferson County, was selected as PA Wilds’ 2022 Event of the Year. When it comes to rural tourism marketing, it’s hard to think of an event more wildly successful than Punxsutawney’s Groundhog Day. This small, otherwise unassuming town in western Pennsylvania has figured out how to take a nondescript animal you can see alongside any road just about anywhere in the eastern U.S., give it a magical backstory and turn it into an immortal celebrity with a signature event. Each year, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club organizes the February 2nd festivities that draw in up to 30,000 visitors. With those visitors comes an influx of tourism, with dollars being spent around the region on souvenirs, food, services and hospitality.
BEST BRAND AMBASSADOR
The PA Wilds Best Brand Ambassador Award honors an organization or individual who has made significant contributions to promoting and developing the PA Wilds brand through logo use, place name recognition, branded product development, storytelling, event or experience packaging or similar efforts.
Smoked Country Jam Bluegrass Festival of Cross Fork, PA (Clinton County)
Smoked Country Jam Bluegrass Festival, an annual event that takes place overlooking Kettle Creek Watershed in Clinton County, was selected for the 2022 Brand Ambassador Award for PA Wilds. Organizers Ron and Teresa Kodish intentionally have promoted the festival to embrace the natural environment of northern Clinton County and the historic importance of local roots music and storytelling. As you enter the parking area, you are greeted by Smoked Country Jam and PA Wilds signage, along with the view of the natural amphitheater of the main performance area. It has a mini-Woodstock feel with a blue grass theme and family friendly focus. One of the two main performance areas is called the “PA Wilds stage.”
The PA Wilds Outstanding Leader Champion Award honors a person, organization, business or elected official that has used their platform to advocate for outdoor recreation economic growth in the PA Wilds as a way to create jobs, diversify local economies, inspire stewardship and improve quality of life.
Meredith Hill of Camp Hill, PA
Meredith Hill, who has been involved with the Pennsylvania Wilds since its inception roughly 20 years ago, was chosen as the recipient of the 2022 PA Wilds Outstanding Leader Award. Hill has served as the Pennsylvania Wilds Conservation Landscape Director for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources during most of that time. She plans to retire sometime in 2023, leaving a position that has always been more than just a job to her. Hill has been a source of inspiration for many of those still working for the PA Wilds. She played an integral role in the development and growth of the Pennsylvania Wilds initiative, participating in long planning meetings during the early days, and she continues to put her heart into the PA Wilds.
The PA Wilds Conservation Stewardship Champion Award honors the best practices and achievements of an individual, business or organization that demonstrates a commitment to conservation and outstanding resource stewardship of the natural and cultural assets in the PA Wilds.
Dale Luthringer of Cooksburg, PA (Forest County)
Dale Luthringer, an Environmental Education Specialist for Cook Forest State Park, was chosen for the 2022 Conservation Stewardship Award. Luthringer creates and leads teacher workshops and environmental education programs, with about 18,000 attending each year. He also conducts various forms of ecological research on topics such as acid mine reclamation, white-tailed deer populations, West Nile virus, old growth forest documentation, National Audubon Society SAP’s, Pennsylvania Herpetological Atlas, Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas, gypsy moth suppression, and hemlock wooly adelgid, among others. Luthringer also organizes various community educational and volunteer events such as the Woodsy Owl Workday, the Cook Forest Big Tree Extravaganza, and the Cook Forest French & Indian War Encampment.
The PA Wilds Inspiring Youth Champion Award honors an adult or youth who has made outstanding contributions to involve young people in the work to grow the region’s outdoor recreation economy and to conserve its unparalleled natural and cultural resource assets.
Lu Ann Potter of Pennsdale, PA (Lycoming County)
Lu Potter, one of the founders of Project Coffee House in Clinton County and now Project Nature C.A.M.P., successor to Summer Alive in Lycoming County, was chosen for the PA Wilds Inspiring Youth Award for 2022. Potter has been impacting the lives of young people in the PA Wilds for decades. The programming that Potter oversees incorporates participation of agencies and individuals in the community of Montgomery, creating broad ownership, and it provides enrichment activities for children during the summer, including life experiences through crafts, books and special guests; an emphasis on gardening and healthy eating habits; opportunities for interactive play and games, accenting teamwork; and nutritious food to all participants.
The PA Wilds Great Design Champion Award honors an individual, business or organization that has done outstanding work to preserve, protect or enhance an area’s rural community character and to promote the use and understanding of the PA Wilds Design Guide.
The Gamble Mill of Bellefonte, PA (Centre County)
The Gamble Mill, a renovated historic mill in Bellefonte that now serves as an inn and restaurant, was chosen for the 2022 Great Design Award for the PA Wilds. Brothers Jonathon and Chris Virgilio saw an opportunity to breathe new life into one of the last remaining grain mills in the country, with original construction dating back to before Bellefonte was even a town. The owners had to find the right balance in the design to preserve the historic nature of the building while incorporating modern amenities. Today the mill operates as a small inn, incorporating uniquely different suites with contemporary touches. As part of the brothers’ business model, they have also utilized the additional space by adding a restaurant (The Creekside), a cocktail lounge (The Republic), a speakeasy (private event space), and a boutique (Smith & Front).
The PA Wilds Great Places Champion Award honors innovative asset development and promotion that have worked together to create an excellent new or revamped sustainable tourism destination within the PA Wilds.
Twin Lakes Recreation Area of Wilcox, PA (Elk County)
Twin Lakes Recreation Area in Elk County was selected for the 2022 PA Wilds Great Places Award. Due to capacity and budget restraints, the Allegheny National Forest was originally going to close Twin Lakes. Friends of Twin Lakes saved the area and is now bringing in guests every weekend during camping and travel season. Twin Lakes Recreation Area boasts a swimming area and bathhouse, picnic pavilion, campground, interpretive trails and a heavily stocked trout stream.
MEMBER OF THE YEAR
Each year, the PA Wilds Planning Team honors an individual who has made exemplary contributions to the work of the PA Wilds Planning Team and the regional revitalization effort it helps advance.
Katie de Silva (Clinton / Lycoming Counties)
Clinton County Planner Katherine de Silva, a Lycoming County resident, is recipient of the 2022 PA Wilds Member of the Year Champion Award. As soon as Katie joined the PA Wilds Planning Team, she became a very active and involved member. She quickly took on leadership roles and serves as vice chair of the Planning Team, in addition to participating in several committees and task forces, such as the Natural Resources Committee and the Solar Grid Task Force. She also serves as a Planning Team representative on the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship's Board of Directors. Through these many leadership roles, Katie is helping to transition one of the longest-standing PA Wilds stakeholder groups to a new era of regional planning and collaboration. She was always and continues to be generous in sharing her extensive knowledge and resources, and without question has been an asset in any project she has been part of, whether as a leader or a contributor.