Chamber celebrates 115 years; Harris, Hillyer Natchezians of the Year

Published 10:43 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2023

NATCHEZ — The Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce celebrated its 115th birthday Tuesday night at its annual Chamber Gala and honored two new Natchezians of the Year and the small and large businesses of the year.

Chamber Chairman of the Board Scott McLemore, senior vice president of Concordia Bank, handed his gavel over to new Chamber Chairwoman Tuwanna Williams, the community’s workforce development director, and thanked the Chamber Board for supporting him and for supporting the  Chamber during his time as leader of the Chamber.

“Thank you for not turning me down when I called upon you,” McLemore said. “It was not all work, and it was not all play, but you have to be present, and you were.”

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McLemore also closed with reminding the several hundred who were present at the Natchez Convention Center on a rainy fall Tuesday that businesses and leaders on both sides of the Mississippi River make up one community that very much needs each other to excel.

“Our community would not thrive and would not succeed without working together,” he said.

The highlight of the evening was the annual Chamber Awards.

2023 Natchezian Woman of the Year, Nicole Harris

“Our woman of the year may not be the star of the show, but the show definitely would not go on without her,” said Kathleen Bond, winner of the 2022 Natchezian Woman of the Year, who presented the award.

Harris has been in more than 10 productions, built and painted sets, directed plays, worked backstage, worked the ticket counter and spent endless hours volunteering in her support of the Natchez Little Theater.

Harris moved to Natchez almost nine years ago with her husband, Lance Harris, and has worked full-time while raising her two children.

She serves on the Community Alliance board as its treasurer and manages the financial operations of the organization. Harris is also leader of the Stewpot Mission outreach, where she can be found overseeing the meal at the Stewpot each fourth Sunday of the month for the First Presbyterian Church.

“She coordinates the needs for holiday meals and has even brought her family to help serve meals to those in need on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and Easter Sunday in addition to designing menus and acquiring donations,” Bond said.

Prior to moving to Natchez, Harris worked in the archaeological field for more than 10 years. She then helped the citizens of Louisiana through her work at the Louisiana State University Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services Lab, where she administered the state’s missing person’s database and helped to discover the identity of unidentified bodies through her role as a facial reconstruction artist.

“The Adams County coroner has utilized her forensic science skills on occasion as well,” Bond said. “She has also worked as a MacArthur Foundation grants manager for fulfilling juvenile justice reform.

“While most of us are enjoying festivals, Nicole can always be seen setting up and working the Natchez Balloon Festival through her job at the Historic Natchez Foundation. Since 2017, she has worked as curator at the Historic Natchez Foundation and manages the collection holdings and aids researchers along with a host of other duties,” Bond said.

She also volunteers for Y’all Means All Natchez and Angels on the Bluff and was the bird in the cage at Allumer, the light-based art exhibit last weekend.

2023 Natchezian Man of the Year, Ben Hillyer

Tom Graning, the Chamber’s 2022 Natchezian Man of the Year, introduced The Natchez Democrat’s own Ben Hillyer as this year’s award winner.

“Our Natchezian Man of the Year is rarely seen in front of the camera,” Graning said. “Actually, he is always behind the camera photographing all things Natchez.”

Hillyer was born in Asheville, North Carolina, and spent his early years in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He graduated from high school in Carrolton, Alabama, and headed to Mississippi  State University, majoring in computer engineering with encouragement from his parents. However, Hillyer really wanted to study art.

He changed his major and graduated from Mississippi State with a degree in architecture. It was in architecture school at State that Hillyer met his wife, Natchezian Amelia Salmon.

After graduating, he went to work in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he followed some architecture classmates to work for BSW International, a firm serving big-box retail clients.

“Ben can still spot Sam’s Clubs and Walmarts of the vintage design of his time with the firm,” Graning said.

After Hillyer and Salmon married in October 1999, Hillyer continued to live and work in Jackson and Amelia in Natchez, where she opened her own Natchez architecture practice in the same month of their marriage. He moved to Natchez in the Spring of 2000, intending to continue to work with the Jackson firm while taking on work in his wife’s office.

“After one disastrous turn taking field measurements together, they reconsidered an architectural partnership and Amelia removed the S from architects in her firm name,” Graning said.

Hillyer approached then Democrat Creative Director Kevin Cooper about a part-time job to pursue his long-held desire to work in photography.

“Kevin took a chance and hired Ben, whose first assignment was Cathedral graduation in 2000,” Graning said.

Since those first photographs for The Democrat, Hillyer has held a number of positions at The Democrat, all the time remaining a journalist. He was instrumental in the creation of Natchez The Magazine.

Today, Hillyer works as director of digital engagement for Boone Newsmedia, The Democrat’s parent company.

Hillyer’s photos have earned a myriad of awards from his journalist and fine arts peers.

“Though rarely without a camera, Ben engages with Natchez community groups. He and his family are active communicants of Trinity Episcopal Church, where Ben serves on the vestry and sings baritone in the choir,” Graning said.

Hillyer is also a member of the Natchez Rotary Club and recently served on the Downtown Natchez Alliance design committee.

“Ben is an encourager, mentoring photographers in the newsroom and as a visitor to school classrooms; a meeter-in-the-middle, hearing the sides of an argument and helping others to do the same; a creative thinker, seeking ways to engage people and present ideas,” Graning said.