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Berkeley Springs Water festival win gives boost to local economy

April 23, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A Martinsburg company's gold medal win at the Berkeley Springs (W.Va.) International Water Tasting eight weeks ago has springboarded distribution of its fledgling bottled water into five states.

"Before this competition, we were selling it out of our garage," said Robert "Bob" Downey, president and managing director of Spero Group Inc., which created the Tumai Water brand of natural spring water that is bottled at Grand Springs in Alton, Va.

Tasting event founder Jeanne Mozier said the event has continued to attract more and more attention around the world since it was launched 18 years ago.

"We were amazed at the media interest that kept building year after year," Mozier said. "When we created this event, the water-bottling industry was just beginning to emerge. Now, it's just huge."

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The event is now the largest and longest of its kind, featuring more than 100 entries each year and receiving coverage from the BBC. It was prominently featured on CNN's "Headline News," among a number of prominent news organizations.

Downey formally received his tasting award and commemorative handcrafted glass bowl from event's producer, Jill Klein Rone, at a presentation on Tuesday.

"Few wins have thrilled me more than this one," Rone said, referring to the company's commitment to donate a portion of profits to African relief efforts.

Downey, 40, said the company's humanitarian mission came into being after a church mission to South Africa in 2006, while he was working in Schenectady, N.Y.

The company has committed 15 percent of its gross profits, but Downey said donations to Tumai Foundation, a nonprofit organization he founded to facilitate the charity work in Africa, have exceeded 25 percent so far.

"We're going to be held accountable for everything we say," said Downey when asked about the company's charitable activities.

Organized in May 2007, Spero Group Inc. surveyed bottling facilities before settling on Grand Springs near Danville, Va., and began bottling in October 2007. Before the Berkeley Springs event, the company had a few buyers in West Virginia, Downey said. Now the product is distributed in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and Virginia.

A Martinsburg High School graduate, Downey said he was a "computer geek" prior to founding the company, which includes incorporating officers in Schenectady and Fultonville, N.Y., and Randburg, South Africa.

Downey said one of the fledgling Tumai foundation's beneficiaries is the Mpumalanga Christian Network in Nelspruit, South Africa.

In addition to the gold medal, Tumai Water was awarded the bronze for best packaging design.

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