GARNER – One of Garner’s biggest boosters and most well-known faces is being honored for his many years of work on behalf of his hometown.
Neal Padgett, who led the Garner Chamber of Commerce for 14 years before retiring in February, has been named the 2020 recipient of the James R. Stevens Service to Garner Award. The honor is bestowed on individuals who have made substantial, outstanding contributions to the Town of Garner over a significant number of years.
“Neal’s leadership at the Chamber put our sleepy little suburb on the map,” the nomination for Padgett said. “Because of Neal’s professionalism and advocacy, Garner finally found its well-deserved place in important conversations highlighting the Triangle’s best places to live, work and play.”
The nomination spotlights Padgett’s role in helping to establish the performing arts as a driving cultural and economic force in the community. Specifically, he is credited with making Garner Performing Arts Center the town’s cultural arts hub by working with Garner resident Tim Stevens to launch the nationally recognized Broadway Voices series, which for a decade now has brought top Broadway stars to the GPAC stage.
“Broadway Voices changed the arts scene in Garner,” former GPAC manager Debbie Dunn said. “The series showed the potential of the GPAC and the community in the arts.”
Stevens, a former James R. Stevens Service to Garner Award winner (the award was named for his father), was quoted in the nomination as saying it took Padgett’s special skill set to make Broadway Voices a reality.
“The series was difficult to get started because it was just a dream,” Stevens said. “There was nothing tangible there. But when Neal got involved, he brought a toolbox filled with assets: dreams, love of the arts, connections and persistence.”
“No other Chamber of Commerce in the country was involved in anything like Broadway Voices, and the Chamber really didn’t benefit a lot from the series, but Neal thought it was important for Broadway Voices to succeed,” Stevens said. “He looked at the series from the economic development as well as performing arts perspective. He also saw the series as an asset for our community as we looked to grow and attract businesses.”
Padgett pitched a proposal for Broadway Voices to Town officials, emphasizing its potential to contribute to Garner’s economic and community development. His plan included making the Town the primary sponsor of the series and delegating to the Chamber the responsibilities for marketing, ticket sales, production and logistics.
Today, Broadway Voices regularly brings in visitors from along the East Coast from Maryland to Florida. The series’ success spurred the Town to beef up its cultural arts personnel, replacing a part-time GPAC manager with two full-time employees (including a full-time GPAC manager) and several part-timers. The Town also launched its own performing arts series called It’s Showtime, which brings a wide range of nationally touring acts to the GPAC.
Padgett was part of a delegation of Garner residents and Town officials who traveled to Denver in 2013 to compete for the All-America City Award. Garner won the award, and one of the key components of its successful application and presentation was the role of Broadway Voices in breathing life into the GPAC.
Padgett also started new Chamber events that raised both the town’s and his organization’s profile throughout the region.
He developed the Chamber’s Summit Awards, which, as the nomination puts it, “transformed the Chamber’s annual meeting into an event that recognizes outstanding businesses and business people in our community.” Padgett also created the annual Connect Conference, an event focusing on economic development trends in Garner that brings together well over 200 business leaders from around Garner and the Triangle.
Under Padgett’s direction, the Garner Chamber in 2018-19 earned the Carolinas Accredited Chamber designation; it is currently one of 30 accredited chambers in the Carolinas.
In addition to his leadership of the Chamber, Padgett has long been known as the highly accomplished organist at Aversboro Road Baptist Church. He has been involved in the community in many other ways too, including helping to create the original iteration of the Town’s July 3rd Celebration, which was held in the football stadium at Garner High.
Neal is married to Karen Padgett, who in recent years has been active in the Garner Area Historical Society and the citizen-led effort to move Garner’s Historic Train Depot to the corner of West Main and Pearl Streets and have the renovated building serve as home to a museum that showcases Garner’s history. The couple have an adult daughter, Carson Padgett Hart.
The award nomination notes that Padgett has received a number of other individual awards, such as the News & Observer’s Tarheel of the Week and N.C. Chamber Executive of the Year from the Carolinas Association of Chambers of Commerce. “However, citizens throughout Garner and Wake County recognize him for applying his numerous talents to promote and support the success of others and, in doing so, strive for the greater good of Garner,” the nomination says.
Padgett will be formally recognized as this year’s Stevens Award winner at the Aug. 18 Town Council meeting, which will start at 7 p.m. and be held in the Council Chambers at Town Hall at 900 7th Ave.