• Chris Johnson, ''Mr. Ham & Yam Festival,'' is 2011 Citizen of the Year

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    February 02, 2012

    The Smithfield-Selma Citizen of the Year is given annually to someone who has contributed extraordinary service to this area. It is sponsored this year by Woody’s Computing Service.
    Three years ago, the Chamber honored Selma’s Joe Carter, who many people called, “Mr. Railroad Days”. This year, the Chamber presents the Citizen of the Year Award to a person who would have to be known as “Mr. Ham & Yam Festival”. He is William Christopher Johnson.
    Chris was born in Weldon, North Carolina and grew up in Jackson, the county seat of Northampton County.  He played football at Northampton County High School-East and graduated from East Carolina University in 1989 with a degree in Industrial Technology. It was at ECU where he met his future wife, Smithfield’s  Kim Gower. As Chris will say, his fate would be to live in Smithfield, because he knew Kim would never leave her hometown.
    This dynamic individual soon became involved in so many areas of service in his “new” hometown. At first it was politics. He became active in the Johnston County Republican Party and from 1994-1996 was a district staff member for Second District Congressman David Funderburk. In 1995 he received the David Proctor Young Republican of the Year Award and, several years later, he would be recognized with the Johnston County Republican Party Service Award.
    He and Kim became partners in Jewel’s Bridal Boutique, a family business started by Kim’s mother. Originally it was located on North Third Street, but in the late 1990’s, the partners purchased the former Congleton Hardware building at the corner of Third and Market Streets. The renovation of the building gave Chris his first taste of downtown revitalization – and he liked it.
    Chris quickly became involved in the Downtown Smithfield Development Corporation as a Board member. After the 13-year tenure of former Executive Director Ray Gibbs and brief stays by two other directors, the opportunity arose for Chris. He was hired by the Corporation to be its fifth executive in 2000, after convincing the Board he was the person to do the job.
    Over the 12 years since taking the reins at the DSDC, downtown has seen many improvements. Most noticeable are the streetscape project with new sidewalks and street trees and the burying of power lines on Market Street. But there is much more that’s happened, which can best be summed up in one word – activity.
    Downtown Smithfield is a thriving place all year long. The Third on Third Concert Series, the Harbor Wine Walk, the Faith Festival, Fourth of July Celebration, the Smithfield Farmers Market, the Ava Gardner Film Festival are among the many activities that now occur regular. Downtown is the home of museums, shops, restaurants and, most recently, the office of the Johnston County Visitors Bureau.
    And then, of course, there’s the Smithfield Ham & Yam Festival. Chris’s insight, creativity and just plain hard work have made the Ham & Yam one of the premier community festivals in North Carolina. The annual weekend concert has become the highlight, featuring top retro bands from 70s and 80s. He challenges the entire community to add to the success and when it meets that challenge, he does crazy things like cannonball into the Neuse River with his clothes on.
    Economic Development goes hand in hand with downtown revitalization. Chris performs economic development work for the town of Smithfield. He has worked extensively with the Chamber and was its Board Chair in 2006. He has helped the Smithfield-Selma area create certified industrial sites and has traveled all over the country promoting this community. He is a member of the Johnston County Economic Development Commission and the Research Triangle Regional Partnership Board of Directors.
    Chris has put his money where is job is. In addition to being an owner at Jewel’s, he and Interstate Glass Owner David P. Johnson bought and renovated in 2007 a vacant building on South Third Street. The building now houses commercial space downstairs and two upscale loft apartments upstairs. The project could have been featured on the TV show, “This Old House,” as the building was totally gutted from the floors to the roof joists.
    But Chris’s contributions to the Smithfield-Selma area go well beyond the downtown development corporation. He has had an instrumental part in the success of the Ava Gardner Museum and currently serves as its president. He is a deacon, Sunday School teacher and past choir member at Smithfield’s First Baptist Church. He has acted with the Neuse Little Theatre, performed in the Johnston Community College Country Music Showcase and sung the National Anthem at government and civic events. He is a member of the Smithfield Historic Properties Commission. Chris has had a strong interest in education. He helped start the Neuse Charter School, assembled its Board of Directors and currently serves as its chairman of the board. He has led the school’s building program at its new site on Booker Dairy Road and has played an instrumental role in Neuse Charter being named a School of Distinction for the last three years.
    For recreation, Chris enjoys biking, disco music and drinking coffee in the morning at a downtown establishment. He has become at expert at using Photo Shop to alter pictures of friends and himself in some very creative ways. Many of these pictures can be found on his Facebook page, another one of his passions. He uses social media extensively. His wife Kim says he is addicted to it, but he’ll just say it’s another way to meet people and promote downtown. And that’s probably true. He has over 1,500 friends and over 400 pictures on Facebook.
    Interstate Glass’s David Johnson says of Chris, “He likes to have fun. Every day he lives his life to the fullest. He is constantly promoting his community in all of his personal endeavors. He is an humble Christian, has a good knowledge of the Bible and loves the Lord.”
    In addition to his wife Kim, Chris is the proud father of two children, Quinton who is 16 and Caroline who is 12.
    One final thought comes from Chris himself. “When you come downtown, you want to see things you can’t find anywhere else. We have those things here that other downtowns don’t have. When people come in, they say, ‘Smithfield has really got it going on.’ It is a piece of Americana that other communities have lost. We need to do what we can to preserve it.”
    Rick Childrey, President
    (919) 934-9166

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