16 Emerging Leaders Honored along with 2023 Respect Your Elder Award Recipient
BOONE, NC – An evening designed to celebrate 16 emerging High Country’s leaders was highlighted by five honorees earning accolades during the 7th annual Boone Area Chamber of Commerce 4 Under 40 Awards ceremony. The event was hosted Thursday, April 6, 2023, in front of a crowd of over 200 attendees at the Appalachian Theatre in Downtown Boone.
The 4 Under 40 awards are presented annually by Appalachian Commercial Real Estate.
“The total accomplishments and impact of this year’s honorees is nothing short of inspiring,” said David Jackson, President/CEO of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce. “The common thread of this year’s honorees is their dedication to community. Each has displayed superior professional skills in their careers, and the work they do is focused on making the High Country a better place for all residents. We may highlight an honoree in each category, but this event is about showing the strength and abilities of all 16 finalists. The 4 Under 40 Class of 2023 adds to an emerging web of accomplished professionals that all have their betterment of Watauga County and the High Country in mind. We are in great hands knowing that people of this caliber are already working with our long-time leaders toward preserving a positive future for all who live and work in our community.”
Nearly 40 unique nominations were submitted by local community members for this year’s awards, and 16 finalists across four categories were recognized during the event. The evening also included the presentation of the annual Respect Your Elder award, which is given to a community member who has offered support and mentorship to aspiring leaders. Over 115 individuals have been recognized during the 4 Under 40 Awards since the event’s inception in 2017.
Nominees were sought in the categories of business owner, education professional, non-profit business professional, and rising star. A biography of each award honoree is listed below:
Business Owner: Halee Hartley, Kid Cove
With a deep waiting list for access to childcare in Watauga County, Halee Hartley opened Kid Cove in 2018 with space for 30 students. With more than a decade spent working in the industry, she opened her business with the goal of helping children develop and learn through creativity, and a belief that a well-rounded education starts with a well-rounded pre-school experience.
Within five years of starting her business, Hartley saw the opportunity to meet additional childcare capacity needs and launched a second location to focus on half-day and drop-off daycare services. Kid Cove now serves over 100 children between its two facilities, creating flexibility for parents that has been a popular enhancement to the High Country’s evolving childcare landscape.
Hartley holds a Batchelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from Kaplan University and a Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology from Purdue University. Always operating with a growth mindset, she now offers a summer camp through her Oak Grove Rd location, providing 75 slots for children to enjoy an outdoor-focused experience. She plans to open Abide Academy in the Fall of 2023, a private academy serving K-12 students.
The 4 Under 40 Business Owner Award was sponsored by Spangler Restoration, with Ben Kauffman presenting this year’s honor to Hartley. Additional Business Owner finalists include:
Alex Brown – Corbetts Produce – Served over 15,000 customers in its first year of operation. Features over 4,000 local products to highlight the diverse offerings of the High Country Agriculture community.
Amanda Hood – Mountain Elite Cheer & Tumbling – Operates clinics for boys and girls of all ages and skill levels. She manages three competition cheer teams from the High Country that participate in events across the Southeast US.
Melody Pineda – Mountaineer Mania / Mast Farm Inn – Purchased Mountaineer Mania in 2020 and led extensive renovation of the King Street business. In 2021, she purchased Mast Farm Inn with a partner and has worked to restore and preserve the iconic Valle Crucis business.
Education Professional: Garrett Price, Director of Communications, Watauga County Schools
Garrett Price was hired as the Director of Communications and Public Relations in 2016. He is a native of Watauga County, attended Mabel Elementary School and graduated from Watauga High School. Prior to his position with Watauga County Schools, he was a local government and education reporter for the Watauga Democrat.
Price has been the recipient of numerous awards from the NC School Public Relations Association. His honors include Blue Ribbon Awards in the categories of Graphic Design, for materials promoting and celebrating the successes of the school system to prospective parents and students, and Electronic Media, for his annual teacher of the year celebration videos and numerous productions informing the public about the ever-changing status of pandemic precautions and procedures.
A key member of the WCS central office team, Price maintains and utilizes the system’s strategic communications framework to guide public communications and reinforce the importance and value of the county’s public school system. Price maintained a weekly dashboard of statistics and information during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to help the public see how the school system was tracking cases and maintaining the safe and healthy operation of schools.
The 4 Under 40 Education Professional Award was sponsored by Mast general Store, with Suzy Greene presenting this year’s honor to Price. Additional Education Professional finalists include:
Melissa Miller, Math I Teacher, Green Valley School – NC Teaching Fellows graduate earned her National Board Certification in 2019. She works as a regional coach for NC School Improvement Project, aimed at improving literacy and math instruction for teachers across the State of North Carolina.
Matthew Sawyer, Director of Accounting & Finance Program, Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute – Has worked as a full-time instructor of accounting on three different campuses in the last 12-years. He has increased student-focused leadership roles outside the classroom with each appointment, including numerous study-abroad opportunities for students.
Dr. Jason Xiong, Associate Professor of Computer Information Systems, Director of Master of Science Applied Data Analytics Program, Walker College of Business, Appalachian State University – Spearheaded the Walker College of Business Cybersecurity curriculum, one of the college’s growing programs. He has been published 19 times and is working on several successful grant awards that will bring more research opportunities to the University.
Rising Star: Ashli Kemo, Business Development Manager, Spangler Restoration
Ashli Kemo is serving her fifth year as Business Development Manager for Spangler Restoration. While her role concentrates on building brand awareness for her company throughout the High Country market, she is also on the front lines of incident response, working with families and businesses to remediate loss during floods, fires, and other types of disasters. She demonstrates a dynamic combination of knowledge, creativity and strategic thinking in real-time challenges within an emotionally charged environment.
A graduate of West Virginia University, Kemo was recognized as Marketer of the Year in 2019 by the Spangler Organization, a company that serves residents and businesses across the Carolinas. Prior to her time with Spangler, she served as Property Manager at The Cottages of Boone, helping open the facility in 2016. She was recognized as Leasing Manager of the Year and Property Manager of the Year by Capstone Collegiate Communities during her tenure.
Kemo is dedicated to community service, serving as an ambassador with both the Caldwell and Blowing Rock Chambers of Commerce among her many professional associations. She is also an active member of the Caldwell Rotary Club and has spent time volunteering with Adopt-A-Highway, Watauga Humane Society, and Ronald McDonald House during her career.
The 4 Under 40 Business Owner Award was sponsored by Beech Mountain Resort, with Talia Freeman presenting this year’s honor to Kemo. Additional Rising Star finalists include:
Moss Brennan, Editor, Watauga Democrat – One of the youngest editors of the Watauga Democrat in the 135-year history of the publication. He led Mountain Times Publications to several NC Press Association honors and awarded individually by the same organization. Member of Deep Gap Volunteer Fire Department and Watauga County Rescue Squad.
Abby Carson, Director of Hotel Operations, The Horton Hotel – Hospitality industry veteran started her career as General Manager of Hellbender Bed & Beverage in Blowing Rock. In her role at The Horton Hotel, she helped implement strategies that increased sales by over $100,000 over annual projections. Active member of Blowing Rock and High Country Young Professionals.
Nathaniel Johnson, Business Risk Consultant, Granite Insurance – Viewed as a leading risk advisor for the home building industry throughout the High Country. Has spent five years with Granite Insurance, earning a promotion following his first year after earning more than $100,000 in revenue for the company. Serves as a member of the High Country Young Professionals organizing committee and Boone Chamber’s membership committee.
Non-Profit Business Professional: Brittany Luxton, Director of Finance, W.A.M.Y. Community Action
Brittany Luxton serves as Finance Director for W.A.M.Y. Community Action, a position she has held for 11 years. She manages a $2M annual budget and frequently communicates with State and Federal partners to maximize the organization’s ability to receive grant dollars and other sources of funding.
Luxton came to W.A.M.Y. as a client in their Total Family Development program. She was taking courses toward an Associate’s degree, raising a child with medical challenges, and working two jobs in the area. Though those interactions, the W.A.M.Y. leadership team noticed a professional with drive and ambition, and offered Luxton a work-study position to assist the finance office while she completed her coursework. She was promoted to Finance Director in 2012 and has used her experiences with W.A.M.Y. to bring new efficiencies to the organization.
A graduate of Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute, with concentrations in Accounting and Computer Technology, Luxton completed her Non-Profit Management Certification from Duke University in 2019. In addition to her professional career and family time, she serves as a volunteer basketball coach through Watauga County Parks & Recreation.
The 4 Under 40 Non-Profit Professional Award was sponsored by the Stacie Pineda Real Estate Group, with Stacie Pineda presenting this year’s honor to Luxton. Additional Non-Profit Business Professional finalists include:
Jordan Sellers, Northern Peaks Trail Director, Blue Ridge Conservancy – Advanced awareness and activity toward a new State trail that will connect Downtown Boone to Downtown West Jefferson. He was recognized as the 2021 Mountain True Volunteer of the Year.
Lindsey Sullivan, Health Strategist, AppHealthCare – Key connector to the business community for the three-county public health agency. She serves as co-organizer of the Watauga Housing Forums and Watauga Housing Council, and is facilitating the launch of the STABLE workplaces initiative later this year.
Liz Whiteman, Executive Director, Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture – Helped to expand awareness and sales of High Country Food Hub during the Covid-19 pandemic, gaining access to market for dozens of local farm businesses. She led efforts to launch Food Hub Satellite Program and enhanced the Double-Up Food Bucks and Local Food as Medicine initiatives since being named Executive Director.
Respect Your Elder Award: Cay Harkins, Studio K
Cay Harkins has been a fixture in the lives of thousands of High Country families over a 40-year career as a teacher and mentor in the community.
Harkins opened Studio K Dance Workshop in 1979, offering age-appropriate dance training and performance opportunities to students ages 2.5 to adult. The studio serves all levels of experience in Ballet, Hip Hop, Tap, Modern, and Jazz dance. Harkins operates the business to provide the best possible training and to develop each student’s talents to his or her potential. She believes dance provides an outlet for self-expression and confidence, and the physical benefits are long lasting and continue to grow throughout life.
Harkins met her husband, Andy, while the two danced down the Yellow Brick Road as part of the cast at Land of Oz. The entire Harkins family has been a part of instructing or performing with the company.
Since 1985, Studio K annually hosts The Nutcracker Ballet, featuring a cast of over 350 local dancers, bringing Clara’s dazzling holiday fairy tale to life. The annual performance is one of the High Country’s holiday traditions and attracts hundreds of parents, community members, visitors, and Studio K alumni each year.
The 4 Under 40 Respect Your Elder Award was sponsored by First Horizon, with Amanda White presenting this year’s honor to Harkins. James Milner, President/Founder of Appalachian Commercial Real Estate delivered a fitting tribute to Harkins, who happens to also be his mother-in-law.
Additional sponsorship support for the 7th Annual 4 Under 40 Awards ceremony comes from The Horton Hotel, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, and New River Light & Power.
If you have questions, please contact the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce at 828-264-2225 or email
Courtesy of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce.
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