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by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
On a hot and sunny June afternoon, parents carrying towels and holding the hands of bathing suit-clad children approached Valle Bonhag as she sat near the non-operating water fountain at Olney’s Fair Hill shopping center.
She apologized, explaining the area had experienced a power surge, but Pepco was onsite working to restore the electricity.
When the water began to spray, Bonhag was just as happy as the crowd that had gathered to cool off while enjoying the family concert that evening.
For Bonhag, a property manager for the Carl M. Freeman Companies, it was just another day at the office.
On June 7, Bonhag was honored as the Olney Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 Business Person of the Year for her success in her professional life, advancing her company’s efforts to improve life in Olney and supporting the work of the chamber.
At the awards ceremony, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jon Hulsizer thanked Bonhag for her tireless work on behalf of the chamber, which has included serving as a board member, chairing major events, and her most recent efforts in arranging for a memorial plaque dedicated to Montgomery County Police Officer Noah Leotta to be installed near the Fair Hill fountain.
“It’s been a privilege working with Valle – or some may say, carried by,” Hulsizer said.
Upon learning of the award, Bonhag said she experienced several emotions.
“At first I was totally surprised, then thrilled and then humbled,” she said. “I always thought of myself as a cog in a bigger business … I represent the bigger company.”
She recognizes that she has become “the face of Freeman in Olney,” but is quick to give credit to the Freeman organization, which she calls a “well-oiled machine.”
The core value of the company, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary, is “Creating places that enrich lives.”
“That is the epitome of what community is,” Bonhag said. “And the Fair Hill center exemplifies that philosophy.”
Bonhag has lived in Olney for 28 years and spent the past decade working for Freeman.
She has been on the chamber’s board of directors for five years and taken on the task of chairing and co-chairing the organization’s two largest events — National Night Out and Olney Community Night. She also has worked with the chamber’s scholarship committee and attends its networking events.
Bonhag lauded the merchants she serves.
“I have a wonderful tenancy, so that makes my job easy,” she said. “If they’re not happy, I have the ability to turn that around. I take a lot of pride in making the tenants happy and the community happy.”
One of those tenants is Harris Teeter at Fair Hill, managed by Bret Poole. The store was honored with the Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 Partner in Business Award for its significant efforts to help further the chamber’s mission to make the community a great place to live and work.
“We recognize the tremendous benefit of having a chamber member like Harris Teeter that not only sets the standard for grocery stores, but sees the value of improving life in Olney,” Hulsizer said.
Hulsizer said Harris Teeter has allowed the chamber to stage its National Night Out celebration in its parking lot. He also lauded Poole and his employees for their extensive involvement with Olney Community Night, along with meeting the many requests of support from local charitable groups.
“I am honored,” Poole said. “I think we pride ourselves on serving the community, and we are members of the chamber because they have the same integrity and values as we do.”
Ironically, his inspiration comes from a former employee of a competitor.
When Poole was a teenager, he worked at Giant Food in Clarksville. At that time, he said, everyone knew of Charlie Epperly, the long-time manager at the Olney Giant, known for his amazing customer service and commitment to the community.
“I didn’t know him, but knew of him,” Poole said. “Olney deserves someone like that.”
As a child, Poole recalls eating at B.J. Pumpernickel’s and watching movies at the Olney 9 Cinemas, which were located where Harris Teeter sits today.
“Service means a lot to our customers, so that is what we strive for,” Poole said.
He said he is grateful for the recognition.
“Olney has treated us very well,” he said.
Terri Hogan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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