Talbot County Announces 2024 Community Impact Award Winners

CBMM celebrated the grand opening of its new Welcome Center with a free community event on Dec. 2, 2023, featuring a ceremonial rope-cutting by President and CEO Kristen Greenaway to officially open the transformational new building. The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s 12,000 sq. ft. Welcome Center was recognized with a 2024 Community Impact Award from the Talbot County Department of Economic Development and Tourism. (Photo by Sharon Thorpe)

Talbot County business leaders gathered on Thursday, May 2 in the Tidewater Inn’s Gold Ballroom for the 17th Talbot County Business Appreciation Summit and presentation of the 2024 Community Impact Awards.


The event included a keynote address from Chris Pilkerton, former acting administrator and general legal counsel for the U.S. Small Business Administration and author of UNDERSERVED: Harnessing the Principles of Lincoln’s Reconstruction for Today’s Forgotten Communities and an upcoming book on pandemic economic stimulus programs to be released later this year.

Pilkerton was named to Fortune’s List of the 50 Heroes of the Fortune 500 and is a Talbot County resident.

“Talbot County’s small business community actively seeks out ways to work together to support each other and their businesses,” said Pilkerton. “That type of environment creates real opportunities for new and existing companies.


“I have had the opportunity to travel through many states and counties throughout the country and meet directly with local economic development officials,” he said. “In my experience, the team within Talbot County is uniquely supportive of their small businesses and is accessible to help with so many topics as they come up.”


Following Pilkerton’s address, the 2024 Community Impact Awards were announced. Winners included the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s Welcome Center, Willow Construction, Tilghman Island Seafood, The Oxford Mews project, and Easton Utilities President and CEO Hugh Grunden.


“Our goal is to connect the business community with resources that will help them succeed and grow, and to tell the stories of business leaders who are doing extraordinary things,” says Cassandra Vanhooser, director of Talbot County’s Department of Economic Development and Tourism. “This event is our way of saying, ‘Thank you for doing business in Talbot County.”


A video presentation highlighted each award winner’s recent accomplishments, followed by the presentation of an engraved pewter tray, handcrafted in Easton by Salisbury Pewter, and brief comments from recipients.


A Warm Chesapeake Bay Welcome


Opened in December 2023, a new 12,000 sq. ft. Welcome Center anchors Phase II of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s master plan. The building reorients a guest’s approach to campus and is the culmination of many years of work by donors, board members, volunteers, and staff.


A key feature of the building is a large map of the Chesapeake Bay, painted on the floor to show St. Michaels’ location in relation to the Bay and to illustrate the vastness of the country’s largest freshwater estuary. The Welcome Center also is the site of the reimagined museum store, and it features exhibition space for Bay vessels, some of which have been in storage for more than 40 years.


“We are preserving the stories of these vessels and preserving their cultural heritage,” says CBMM President Kristen Greenaway. “Without these memories and these vessels, we would lose these stories.


“The museum is an amazingly important community asset,” Greenaway continues. “We want the community to be able to embrace the knowledge that we are preserving the stories of them and their families for generations to come, so their children will never forget their place within the Chesapeake Bay,” she says. “That’s what we’re working to achieve here every single day.”


50 Years and Counting


Willow Construction in Easton was honored for more than 50 years of excellence in the commercial construction industry. Founded in 1973 by Bill Dittman and his wife Lois, the company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2023. The name Willow is a portmanteau—a combination of the names William and Lois—not a tree species as many have supposed over the years.


These days, a Willow Construction sign can be found in front of building projects across the Eastern Shore and the Delmarva Peninsula, including many in Talbot County, a point of pride for owners Andy Cheezum and Mike Hiner. Their portfolio ranges from hospitals and houses of worship to hospitality and multifamily renovations.


“It gives me a great feeling when I see our sign in front of a building,” says Cheezum, who oversees the operations side of the business. “I’m proud of the company we’ve built and the work we’ve done.”


Still, there’s more to life than work at Willow. Giving back is part of the company’s culture. You’ll find employees volunteering their time for civic organizations after hours and on weekends. In 2023, to celebrate the company’s enduring success, Willow made a conscious decision to support different community organizations each month.


“We agreed that we were going to contribute at least $1,000 a month, and we ended up with about two organizations each month that we supported,” Cheezum notes. “We’re fortunate and blessed that we’re able to give back financially to the community, but we think lending our services in volunteer ways is just as important.”


The company’s senior leadership has made sure they have a succession plan in place, with Sr. Project Manager Eric Milhollan and Senior Estimator Justin Hiner ready to take the reins for the next generation.


“I think the next 50 is a continuation of what we’ve been doing,” Milhollan says. “We’ve been successful. We’re well known, we’ve got a great reputation, and we’ve kept that up for 50 years. We’ve done something right.”


Hooking an Invasive Species


Nick Hargrove took a leap of faith when he started his catfish processing plant on Tilghman Island in 2023.


The owner of Wittman Wharf Seafood, Hargrove was already selling oysters and crab meat to local markets and planting spat on shell for several counties bordering the Bay. But research was beginning to show that blue catfish, an invasive sportfish introduced in Virginia in 1974, were altering the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem by gobbling crabs, oysters, and rockfish in record numbers.


Looking to create a market for the blue catfish fillets and give working watermen a reliable market for their catch, Nick retrofitted the Oyster House on Knapps Narrows in Tilghman, formerly owned by Phillips Wharf Environmental Center, into a catfish processing plant.


“I took my traditional oyster shuckers and crab pickers and put knives in their hands,” Hargrove says, “And we started learning how to cut blue catfish.”


Though he started slow, producing just 2,000 pounds of catfish fillets a day, demand is growing. Hargrove and his team are now processing more than 100,000 pounds of catfish a week. Still, with Whole Foods, Walmart, and Royal Caribbean knocking at the door, the company is rapidly outgrowing the Tilghman facility and is looking for ways to expand.


Hargrove has become the face of the fight to remove this invasive species from the Chesapeake Bay while also working to support local watermen. He testified before the U.S. Senate Committee for Small Business and Entrepreneurship in the summer of 2023 and has hosted federal, state, and local officials, from senators to secretaries.


“My phone rings for catfish five to one over oysters right now,” Hargrove explains. “Our product stands out above farm-raised catfish by leaps and bounds. We’re really on the edge of something big, and I think that we need to keep the foot on the gas pedal and keep this thing going.”


A Sweet Partnership

Built in 1878, the two-story Mews building sits at the intersection of Morris and Market streets, anchoring the tiny downtown Oxford business district. Over the years, it has been home to a general store, an art gallery, a smokehouse, and a combination bike shop and gourmet market. At one point, the historic building was even slated to become a pizza parlor, but problems ensued, and the project faltered.


The Oxford Mews soon fell into disrepair and sat empty before the Town Commissioners intervened.


“When I first moved here with my wife in 2001, you could come in here and buy a bicycle tire, cocktail napkins, and a steak,” says current Oxford Commissioners President Tom Costigan. “It was looking rather forlorn until the whole process of the rejuvenation and the renovation of the building took place. And that’s what you see here today.”


Long a member of the Historic District Commission, Costigan believes in the preservation of historic buildings, and he says the renovation is nothing short of “fantastic.” Not only does it house a key commercial business, but there also are two renovated apartments upstairs and two new apartments in a back addition. The project has breathed new life into the town’s core.


In 2017, the Town of Oxford purchased the dilapidated property and used Town funds and grant money to stabilize the building. Town commissioners announced in 2021 that they had leased the building to Rich and Christine Leggett. The public-private partnership helping to make this project a reality was a victory for the town, for the business community, and for residents.


The town’s beloved Scottish Highland Creamery was located on Tilghman Street at the time, and owners Christine and Rich Leggett had no plans to move—until the renovation of The Mews began. The couple had purchased another building in the center of town, across the street from The Mews, and founded the coffee shop Oxford Social after also purchasing the creamery from founders Susan and Victor Barlow.


“We bought that building because we recognized we needed a way to expand our ice cream production capability,” Rich explains. “The Scottish Highland Creamery is a gathering place for the community in the summer, but there was nothing like that in the winter. That’s what the coffee shop turned out to be.”


Looking at The Mews, day in and day out, fired the couple’s imaginations. Though Rich had enjoyed a long career in banking and finance, working on Wall Street and in both New York and London, his true dream was to own an ice cream business.


“I stood there many days and looked across the street, and I saw this beautiful building that was sitting empty,” Rich says. “If you had called a Hollywood set designer and said, ‘Design me an ice cream parlor out of central casting,’ it would be this building.”


Renovating The Oxford Mews turned into a COVID project for the Leggetts. “It was just a shell,” Rich says. “We had an aesthetic in mind. We wanted it to be somewhat like an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, and we really had a blank canvas to work with. We wanted it to feel a little bit nautical, a little bit old-fashioned. I think we were able to achieve that.”


Ranked as one of the top small-batch ice cream parlors in the country by TripAdvisor, the Scottish Highland Creamery was known far and wide even before it moved to The Oxford Mews. The secret? “Everything’s made in small batches, one or two gallons at a time,” Rich explains. The creamery even has a budding wholesale business, with hand-packed quarts sold in markets and stores across the Eastern Shore.


Before it was renovated, Costigan remembers walking past The Mews building and seeing empty plastic party glasses sitting on the table, left to decay. “It was as if somebody just locked the door and said, ‘Oxford, we’ll see you later,’” he says. “Fortunately, someone has now said ‘Oxford, I’m happy to come here and start a business.’ That’s what we have here today, and I think it’s been a great addition.”


Lighting the Way for 43 Years


Hugh Grunden’s legacy as president and CEO of Easton Utilities is not just defined by his tenure or accomplishments. It’s a testament to his unwavering dedication to serving the community and shaping a brighter future for generations to come.


Grunden’s journey with Easton Utilities began in 1983, and over the years, he has steered the company through significant milestones and transformative projects. From the establishment of seven diverse businesses, including pioneering ventures into cable television, internet services, and ubiquitous broadband access, Grunden has been at the forefront of innovation.


“We established the cable television business in 1984 and added the internet in 1996,” he explains. “In 2000, we constructed our Customer Service Center that enabled us to bring a lot of our folks into one place, which is really advantageous for our business because we were scattered all about town. In 2007, we built an award-winning wastewater facility.”


Easton Utilities expanded beyond the borders of the town in 2018 when it partnered with Talbot County to offer broadband access to the far reaches of the county. “Connect Talbot is just a fascinating project,” Grunden says. “It’s a partnership that we’ve established with Talbot County, the State of Maryland, the Town of Easton, and the federal government. This project would have never been done without the partnership, and we’re well on our way to completing it.”


Reflecting on the company’s ethos, Grunden emphasizes the core values that drive its operations. “Integrity, commitment, and excellence,” he says. “These are more than just words—they are the foundation of our culture.” With a workforce of more than 175, Easton Utilities thrives on a spirit of collaboration and a shared commitment to delivering exceptional service to its customers.


Grunden, who retires July 1 of this year, says he’s been blessed to live in a place he loves and to have a career he loves. “At its heart, Easton Utilities is an infrastructure company,” he explains. “We’ve been charged with the management, operation, and construction of critical infrastructure for our community. This is not a charge we take lightly.”


Still, Grunden’s most memorable moment is not an infrastructure project. “My favorite memory is the resurrection of Rudolph,” he explains.


Each year at Christmas, Easton Utilities would station a 16-ft. plastic Rudolph atop the Talbottown Shopping Center and connect him via cable to a phone booth as a hotline for children to reach Santa. Sometime in the ’70s, the community tradition was shelved. But Grunden, who grew up in Easton, never forgot.


“I was fascinated by the cable,” he admits. “I think that’s what led me to engineering, and it’s something as a child I looked forward to every year.


“As a gift to the community during our Centennial Year, we resurrected Rudolph for Christmas 2013,’ he says. “The response we got from the community was tremendous. My parents sent me to engineering school, and I think my legacy is going to be a 16-ft. plastic reindeer. They didn’t anticipate that, but it’s been fun.”


The Talbot County Business Appreciation Summit is hosted annually by the Talbot County Department of Economic Development and Tourism in partnership with the Talbot County Economic Development Commission.


This year’s summit sponsors include Platinum Sponsor APG Chesapeake, Gold Sponsors BSC Group and Easton Utilities, and Silver Sponsors Shore United Bank and the Talbot County Chamber of Commerce.


Videos and more about this year’s Community Impact Award winners can be found at www.talbotworks.org.