Setting the PACE

The 2015 PACE Awards featured more than 400 local professionals and government officials, all gathered to honor and respect the greatest among their ranks who set the pace for community involvement and professional excellence in our region. The 55th annual Pensacola Area Commitment to Excellence (PACE) Awards continues a long tradition maintained by the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce. The awards have honored 210 outstanding individuals.

“Northwest Florida is home to some of the most dedicated, talented and selfless community leaders, and we want to ensure that we are recognizing the individuals who continue to make our region a better place,” said Greater Pensacola Chamber President and CEO Clay Ingram.

The Emerging Leader of the Year award was created to honor an individual who has recently shown significant potential for leadership in business or community endeavors and who is expected to continue having a positive impact in the area. The award went to Jonathan Griffith, the executive vice president of the Pensacola
Blue Wahoos. Griffith’s achievements include helping manage one of the city’s most successful franchises, which is soon to welcome its millionth fan. Griffith also serves on boards such as Chain Reaction and stays active in the community, helping those outside his immediate industry.

“We don’t win a lot,” joked Griffith. “But the Pensacola Blue Wahoos are not just about baseball, but about improving the quality of life in Pensacola. I hope people see that when they enjoy our games. We want to engage the community and our fans.”

The Professional Leader of the Year award is designed for a person who has made a difference and contributed to the success of their profession by distinguished service to their trade. According to the award requirements, the individual must also be held in high regard for their stature, integrity and inspiration to others.

Former Oakcrest Elementary School principal Denny Wilson was honored as the Professional Leader of the Year for his efforts that eventually led to his school receiving an “A” rating for the first time in its history. Wilson was also named the Escambia County School District’s Principal of the Year in 2013.

“I appreciate so much this honor,” said Wilson. “I need to give it to the amazing faculty fighting the good fight at Oakcrest. The purpose of what these teachers do is hope for so many in the community. We’re here for the people living in the streets and neighborhoods that we sometimes forget exist. We help people go from good to great. Everybody has purpose and everybody is special.”

The Community Leader of the Year award goes to a professional who has distinguished themselves through outstanding contributions in the form of a special project on behalf of the area. This person must also exemplify the true spirit of service. No one exemplified those ideals more in 2014 than Beverly Zimmern, a former mayor of Gulf Breeze and the first female mayor ever in the two-county area. Zimmern oversaw a $17 million municipal budget, managed the City during several major disasters and developed a comprehensive master city plan that involves the replacement of the Pensacola Bay Bridge. Zimmern was described as community-minded and Gulf Breeze-centric. She dealt with the oil spill, the upcoming replacement of the Pensacola Bay Bridge and more, all while serving for just $1 a year.

“It’s so humbling to be standing on the shoulders of so many people who came before me,” said Zimmern. “I could not have done what I did without my city manager, the mentoring of so many, and the help of people at my table. We have great investors in our community. We are growing. We are the little engine that could, regardless of the bumps in the road. I accept this award on behalf of all the citizens of Gulf Breeze.”

The Business Leader of the Year award goes to an individual as recognition for outstanding success in business or industry through the development of a new process, product or service. The award also recognizes those who have made meaningful contributions to the local business community. Dr. Sunil Gupta, who is regarded as a top retinal surgeon, was named Business Leader of the Year for his research and clinical trials that have paved the way for several advancements in retina treatments and therapies worldwide. Dr. Gupta has been responsible for exploring new practices, creating new protocols, designing new surgical tools and more. Dr. Gupta is regularly praised for his patient focus, which includes changing the lives of more than 7,000 individuals. His Retina Specialty Institute has grown to 23 locations and is one of the largest organizations of its kind in the country.

“Even though I’m a retina specialist, I was in the dark about this award,” said Gupta. “I’m very humbled. Healthcare is changing, but the patient is always first and we design models around that patient. That’s the way it should always be and it’s that ideal, and my family, that have led me where I am today. Healthcare’s success in Pensacola is proof that we can be great and world-class.”

The Spirit of Pensacola award, given to an individual who embodies the city’s giving and innovative nature, was awarded to Eric Nickelsen for his lifetime service to the local business and professional community. A key player in the merger between Whitney National Bank and Hancock Bank, Nickelsen is a founding partner of Sperry Van Ness – SouthLand Commercial Real Estate and continues to support several local nonprofits. Nickelsen has won multiple community awards and continues to be one of the most sought after regional advisers.

“You’re not supposed to get an award for something you’re supposed to do,” said Nickelsen. “You’re supposed to give back and that’s all I’ve done. All the winners have given back as well and I’m blessed to be part of this community. You have to surround yourself with people smarter and better than you and that’s all I’ve done. I’m really able to be active in the community because of my family and friends. We need to keep making this community great.”

The Pioneer Award was established in 1978 and honors individuals who make significant contributions, provide leadership with lasting impact and demonstrate a lifetime of commitment to progress for the area. Jerry Maygarden is just such an individual, and serves as president of the Greater Pensacola Chamber Foundation.
Maygarden was honored for his distinguished, professional career and lasting impact to Northwest Florida. A former mayor of Pensacola, Maygarden served as a state legislator in the Florida House of Representatives, as well as the president and CEO of the Greater Pensacola Chamber. Maygarden’s motivation was cited as a driving force for the area’s continued success. He is a Vietnam vet, has served on City Council and various healthcare boards, and founded the local chapter of the Ronald McDonald House Charities. He previously won the 1988 Community Leader of the Year PACE Award.

“In public service, you push a rock up a hill everyday and every night it rolls back down,” said Maygarden. “You start all over the next day. The one thing that inspires you each day to get out of bed and push that rock again is the people, whether they live in Brownsville or East Hill. It’s the people that make the real difference—the people you serve and the people you serve with. It’s been my great honor to experience that. This city has heart and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”