Leaders of the Independence Chamber of Commerce say the group, like the community, is poised to do well in the years ahead, following what 2018 Board Chair Jonathan Zerr called a year of “growth, expansion and mostly successes.”

“We continued to promote growth within the community,” Zerr said at Saturday evening’s annual chamber banquet. He listed several areas of progress, including the opening of the Independence Uptown Market on the Square.

Also, Zerr declared “mission accomplished” on paying off the chamber’s debt, a focus of the board for several years.

“We will continue to be a good steward of our finances,” said Terri Steele, the 2019 chair of the board. She stressed that gaining new members will continue to be a top priority, with a focus on delivering good services to those members.

The chamber’s signature event in the Santa-Cali-Gon Days Festival, held for four days over Labor Day weekend. He said Rockhurst students did a study and determined that the festival brings more than $6 million in “value and benefits” to the community. The chamber itself earned $193,000 from Santa-Cali-Gon last year, Zerr said.

Tom Waters got a standing ovation when he was given the chamber’s Distinguished Service Award. Waters, who owns and runs Corporate CopyPrint on the Square, has chaired the Santa-Cali-Gon Committee and was the chamber’s 2017 board chair. He also stepped in for three months in early 2018 as interim president while the board worked to fill that position.

Zerr said Waters has served the chamber in tough times and good times alike but has always abided by the idea of putting the needs of others ahead of his own.

The chamber named Tom Lesnak, also head of the Independence Economic Development Council, as president and CEO last spring. Like others, he said the staff and volunteers continue to be crucial to the group’s success.

“This doesn’t happen by itself. It happens by a lot of people working together,” Lesnak said.

The evening’s speaker was Kent Rominger, who was on five Space Shuttle missions from 1995 to 2001 – commanding two of them – and who has more 1,600 hours in space. Today he’s the vice president of strategic programs at Northrop Grumman, which operates the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence.

Rominger said he always wanted to fly. He flew F-14s off aircraft carriers during operations in Iraq, and he went to Top Gun.

“I loved flying the Tomcat,” he said. “I was in my element as a fighter pilot.”

He said he has a need for speed – and the Space Shuttle went a whole lot faster than even a Tomcat. At 17,000 mph, it circled the Earth every 90 minutes.

So he picked up a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering and headed for NASA.

“In the astronaut corps, it’s fun being part of that team,” he said. In those days, that group would have 80 to 140 members – some pilots, some scientists working as mission specialists – and training for each mission would run about a year. He later was in charge of that group.

“It’s really fun being around all those interesting people,” he said.

He said being up there and looking out into space gave him a profound appreciation for the vastness of the universe.

“I’m really proud to have been part of our national space program,” he said.

The evening’s other award winners:

• The Ambassador of the Year – members who recruit other members – was Tina Wyatt, owner of Hometown News.

• The Distinguished Citizens of the Year were Katie and Doug Cowan of Independence. They are lifelong residents and volunteers, and Doug Cowan is the president and CEO of the Community Services League.

• The Board Member of the Year is Whitney Watson of Northrop Grumman.