Road commission to finish road projects with 2014 state funding

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

Drivers on Lapeer Road will be dodging orange barrels again this year.

The St. Clair County Road Commission plans to complete some 2015 road projects from a state fund, which awarded the county $4.2 million in January 2014.

Money from the risks and reserves fund has already been used to fund several projects in St. Clair County as part of the road commission’s transportation plan.

Kirk Weston, road commission managing director, said there is a section of Lapeer Road and one intersection in Kimball Township that will be completed using 2014 reserves fund.

“They are last year’s funds, but we are having a carryover,” Weston said. “The state basically cuts you a check to only be used for the projects that were submitted. We have already received the funds for this, we just have to complete them.”

Work on Lapeer from Allen to Wadhams in Kimball Township will begin in May with an estimated completion date of July.

Crews finished work on Lapeer between Beach and Allen roads in November, but the project won’t be closed until May, Weston said, until work including grass seeding is completed.

Those two projects will cost the county $2.8 million.

“It’s all one project, but because of the time constraint we broke it up into two,” Weston said. “They both come from the reserve funds. One portion is just not closed out completely.”

Work on the intersection of Wadhams and Lapeer will begin in May, and will require $500,000 from the reserves funds.

Weston said the work will include storm sewers and repaving the intersection.

A project to repave Lapeer Road from 24th to 32nd streets in Port Huron Township was completed with the use of the reserves funds. It cost $270,000 to take off two inches of asphalt and repave the section.

Shea Road in Cotterville and Ira townships, which was started and completed in June 2014, used $620,000 of reserve funds and $450,000 of the road commission’s funds.

“The receipt of these funds assist the road commission in providing a safe, efficient and cost-effective transportation system for the county,” Weston said. “The road commission worked closely with our legislators and provided them information on local transportation needs.”

The road commission has received similar funding before. In July 2014, the county received $1.2 million from the state’s Priority Road Investment Projects Fund worth $1.2 million.

The state also has distributed general surplus funds, with the road commission receiving $945,000. Those funds will be used for ditch digging on local roads and a chip seal program for road preservation in the county’s townships, Weston said.

“A lot of these funds we’ll apply four or five years ago,” he said. “What we do is submit projects within the county that need to be done. They want projects that are in your transportation improvement plans.”

The commission did not have to apply for money from the risk reserves fund. Projects the road commission considered important were submitted to the county’s state representatives — Dan Lauwers and Andrea LaFontaine, Weston said.

“We were selected for the risk reserves fund and the priority road fund out of a large group,” he said. “These were unexpected funds. They weren’t in our plans at the beginning of the year, so that’s why it is a carryover.”

Weston said the decision about whether the commission will receive similar funding is up to the state.

“We are going to apply for any grants as long as they are available,” Weston said. “With the reserves fund, that’s up to the state.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 14, 2015)

Michigan, Canadian ski resorts make accommodations for slow snow season

Jeremy Bosel, right, and Gunner Spence, of St. Clair Shores, prepare to head down Friday, Jan. 9, at Mt. Holly Ski & Snowboard Resort. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

Jeremy Bosel, right, and Gunner Spence, of St. Clair Shores, prepare to head down Friday, Jan. 9, at Mt. Holly Ski & Snowboard Resort. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

At the Mt. Holly Ski & Snowboard Resort, the snow is both natural and man-made this year.

The resort has had to product its own snow as a result of December’s lack of snowfall.

“We continued to make snow and managed to keep the trails open,” said Mark Tibbitts, general manager at Mt. Holly. “People were still seeing green grass outside in the yard, so the ‘let’s go skiing’ type of mentality wasn’t there.”

Mt. Holly, located on 13536 Dixie Highway in Holly, has machines that crank out snow whenever the weather is below 28 degrees. The man-made snow is made of water and air, which is blasted out as fine crystals.

Tibbitts said the resort has remained open through most of December, much to the surprise of its customers.

“We had one stretch that went well into the 50s and a portion in the 60s,” Tibbitts said of the temperature. “There is nothing you can do to prepare for this except to have your snow-making machines ready to go.”

While it is more expensive to make the snow, Tibbitts said, it is a necessary evil in southeast Michigan.

One night of snowmaking can cost somewhere around $12,000 for Mt. Holly, Tibbittssaid. It’s a costly process, but, the money is re-cooped when the resort is full of people.

Because of the early snow in October, Tibbits said, they began getting customers earlier on and were able to push through the snowless holidays.

“Skiing is a very important winter activity for the young and old,” he said. “We feel we are a good avenue for this.”

Tibbitts has talked to officials at other resorts and has heard the month of December has been just as unkind to them.

The Pine Knob Ski and Snowboard Resort in Clarkston is no stranger to the indecisive weather.

Mary Dawson, office manager for the resort, said they opened Nov. 10 and were able to remain open for the majority of the time. Dawson said the resort closed for three days in December because of rain.

“The new snow outside helps us,” she said. “Once people see it in their backyards, it puts the idea of skiing into their heads.”

Pine Knob has experienced snowmakers who made snow early and often, Dawson said. Now they are looking to finish the season on a strong note with the recent influx of January snow.

While this year’s and last year’s winters are polar opposites, there is one thing they have in common.

“Last year was bitter cold and a lot of snow; this year it has been really warm and there wasn’t a lot of snow,” Dawson said. “In both cases it did not get people out. It was either too cold or too warm.”

Across the border in London, Ontario, Boler Mountain privacy officer Greg Strauss has been working with his management team to make up for the lack of snow in December.

Strauss said they opened later than usual this year because of the weather in London.

As a result, Boler Mountain Resort has had to invest in snowmaking.

“It’s definitely going to be an expensive year,” Strauss said. “The snow budget has been spent and it’s been a situation where we have had to make snow early.”

In December, Strauss said, there was little to no snow and he saw people still riding their bikes in the park.

“We are easily going to surpass $300,000 in snowmaking,” he said. “Last year we were well under budget. We’ve invested a couple million dollars in snowmaking to get us through winters like this.”

Strauss said he is confident the resort will have a good season event, although during Christmas break, revenue was only 20 percent of last year’s totals.

“We are happy to see winter has come full force,” Strauss said. “Things have turned around greatly this week.”

Farther north in Collingwood, Ontario, is the Blue Mountain Resort, which opened for ski season in early-December.

Ashley Amis, a Blue Mountain spokeswoman, said the type of skier to come through their doors in December was different from what has been seen in previous years.

“It’s interesting because with the mild temperature, we saw a bit of our shift in customer base,” she said. “We saw a high increase for our beginner programs. Some of our hardcore customers have not come out as much. Now as we are heading into January, we are seeing a return to our normal vistorship.”

To counter the warm weather, Blue Mountain has had to use its variety of snow guns and offered a 40-minute snow guarantee.

The guarantee allows the customer to get his or her money back if the snow was not up expectation within the first 40 minutes at the resort.

Amis said they’ve been lucky this year, as the resort gets a lot of its business around the holidays from families interested in trying skiing together.

“Skiing in Ontario is big,” she said. “We like to think it’s the only sport an entire family can participate in at the same time.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 21, 2015)

Commissioners will get convention center updates in Thursday meeting

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

The St. Clair County Commissioners on Thursday will go over the budget for the Blue Water Convention Center and will hear updates on the progress of the building.

The 40,000-square-foot convention center is near completion and will be finished under budget, said board Chairman Jeff Bohm.

“The thing we have to focus on is finishing the convention center to make sure it is up and running,” Bohm said. “We are not complete yet, but just getting it run efficiently is important.”

Bohm said the county updates the convention center budget monthly. A document with the costs is in the packet commissioners receive for each meeting.

County administrator Bill Kauffman will talk about the convention center, including what has been installed since the last report in December.

As of Dec. 31, the convention center construction fund had $1.8 million remaining.

There was $2.5 million in the budget as of Nov. 30, according to a construction fund update provided to the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners.

Bohm said the difference can be attributed to paying for construction costs.

Third District Commissioner Howard Heidemann is one of the three commissioners who serves on the change-order committee for the convention center.

He said the convention center has had only a few change orders since November.

“There was some issue with the way the architect had modeled the area in the front and back of the long hallway and it needed to be insulated. The expense was minimal,” Heidemann said. “We will be well under budget. I wouldn’t be surprised if we weren’t $100,000 under budget.”

Bohm said there have been eight change-order meetings. The ninth will be Thursday before the regular board meeting.

Adoption of the convention center’s 2015 operating budget was removed from Thursday’s agenda.

Bohm said items regularly are removed from the agenda because the county doesn’t have all the information.

“Most of the convention center things are just progress reports and where we are at in the process,” Bohm said. “If anything does need to be discussed, it will be brought up at the meeting.”

Commissioners also will focus on the county’s 2015 and 2016 priorities.

Bohm said commissioners have until early February to add priorities to the list.

“We are going to discuss a little bit more of the ideas and initiatives from the last meeting,” Bohm said. “Then we will set our priorities for this year. Some of these items take longer than others because they are bigger initiatives.”

The priorities range from building a new impound lot for the sheriff’s department to approving plans for the former Art Van building in Port Huron.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 14, 2015)

Marine City keeps manager, police chief jobs separate

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

Marine City will not combine the jobs of city manager and chief of police.

The commission made its decision during a Thursday night meeting, said police Chief Don Tillery.

While the board chose not to combine the two jobs, Tillery said there was a resolution to appoint him as acting city manager. He will also work on the sub-committee formed to find the permanent city manager.

“I agree wholeheartedly with the decision,” Tillery said. “I think it is a good decision for the city, and I look forward to my new challenges and role as the acting city manager. I look forward to assisting in any way I can for the search for the new city manager to take us to the next level.”

Lisa Hendrick, Marine City commissioner, said many of the people at the meeting spoke against the proposal to combine the job.

“Everybody tried to be diplomatic about it,” Hendrick said. “They expressed that they didn’t think combining the jobs was a good idea. After that the board decided not to combine them.”

Commissioner Dianne Lovett moved to appoint Tillery as interim city manager after some discussion, Hendrick said.

The motion passed 5-2 with Hendrick and Commissioner Raymond Meli voting against it.

“I can only speak on behalf of the people who contacted me, but I think it’s controversial in the community,” Hendrick said. “They just weren’t comfortable with it, so I voted against it.”

John Gabor, the city’s current manager, is leaving at the end of January to be deputy city manager and treasurer in Hamtramck.

Gabor proposed the job of city manager be combined with that of police chief.

After Gabor leaves, the commission has 90 days to fill the job.

The sub-committee to find a new city manager includes Hendrick, Lovett, Tillery, Mayor Raymond Skotarczyk and a person from the community, who will be appointed to the board after expressing interest and providing a resume.

Skotarczyk said he asked to bring a citizen-at-large to the sub-committee to reach out and make them part of the process.

The sub-committee will be looking for a city manager candidate who is experienced and can bring some energy to the job, Skotarczyk said.

“Originally, I was in favor of the consolidation to save the city $60,000,” Skotarczyksaid. “That changed because the overwhelming feedback was they wanted more out of their city manager and not less.”

The commission will discuss at the next meeting at 7 p.m. Feb. 5 how Tillery will be paid as acting city manager. Hendrick said Tillery will not take over until the end of January.

“I look forward to the search to find someone to take our downtown development and our city as a whole into the next chapter of our book,” Tillery said.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 16, 2015)

Marine City to address combining top jobs at Thursday council meeting

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

A proposal to combine the jobs of Marine City police chief and city manager is meeting with some resistance from residents.

Lisa Hendrick, Marine City commissioner, said she heard from several business owners about a petition opposing Police Chief Don Tillery taking over the city manager job, but is unaware of who started it. She said the community seems to be against “this whole deal.”

“People still don’t think things are running properly,” Hendrick said. “They still don’t feel that’s the right fit for the community.”

John Gabor, the city’s current manager, is leaving at the end of January to be deputy city manager and treasurer in Hamtramck.

Gabor proposed the job of city manager be combined with that of police chief.

“It’s been done in other cities,” he said. “It is one option the board was looking at. There isn’t any reason why (Tillery) couldn’t.”

Hendrick said she expects a lot of residents to be at the Thursday meeting, where she plans to go along with what the constituents want.

“I would hope the people come and do voice their concerns and let the board hear what they have to say,” she said. “I think it’s good to take a look at what’s available. If that means we go out and search or Don puts in an interview with all the others, that’s fine.”

Hendrick said she does not know if the commission will consolidate the two positions if a large number of residents are opposed.

Once Gabor is gone, the commission has 90 days to fill the position, Hendrick said. The city also will have to pick a temporary manager until the search and interview process is completed.

Marine City Mayor Raymond Skotarczyk hasn’t heard about a petition to try to block the appointment of Tillery, but said it wouldn’t surprise him if there was one.

Skotarczyk said there is a large group of residents unhappy with Tillery because of “Wallygate,” where a decision was made by city officials and Tillery in 2010 to fire Marine City police officer Wally Reichle.

“He didn’t win any friends when that happened,” Skotarczyk said of the incident. “I expected for that group to get vocal. It’s one of those hot-button type of issues. I’ve had people from the business community say they are not in favor of combining the two jobs.

“My recommendation is we post the job and do some interviews and see what kind of candidates are out there.”

If the positions are not combined, Skotarczyk said a job search could take a couple of months.

Kathy Vertin, owner of the Snug Theatre, said the reason residents might be opposed to the idea is not because of Tillery.

“I think the concern is combining the manager and police chief position,” Vertin said. “I don’t think anyone here has anything against him at all.”

Tillery declined to comment.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 13, 2015)

DTE Energy to upgrade more Port Huron street lights

DTE crew members work on replacing bulbs from light posts Monday, Jan 12, along Pine Grove Avenue and Brandywine Lane in Port Huron. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

DTE crew members work on replacing bulbs from light posts Monday, Jan 12, along Pine Grove Avenue and Brandywine Lane in Port Huron. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

DTE Energy will be replacing another 100 or so Port Huron street lights from late January through the end of March.

As part of its street light-improvement program in Southeast Michigan, DTE Spokesman Scott Simons said the company will be replacing mercury-vapor lights with high-pressure sodium lights along Pine Grove Avenue between Church Street and Simpson Road.

The work is part of DTE Energy’s $3 million investment to improve street lighting service in cities for 2015.

“We worked with the city to identify the lights that they felt needed a change and we went from there,” Simons said. “If they want more upgraded, we are more than happy to work with them.”

DTE Energy will upgrade the older street lights that are energized by “series circuits,” Simons said. These streetlights can be problematic because, like Christmas tree lights, when one lamp goes out other lights on the circuit can be affected.

These upgrades come after nearly 60 lights were replaced in November and December on Fort, Quay, Merchant, Michigan and Bard streets, Glenwood and Grand River avenues and McMorran Boulevard downtown.

Bob Clegg, city engineer for Port Huron, said DTE had planned to replace the Pine Grove circuit in 2015, but moved it up because of recurring problems.

“The majority of lights are owned, operated, maintained and replaced by DTE,” Clegg said. “We pay them a monthly fee for their existence and they decide when to update their infrastructure. We let them know if there are any issues with them.”

Clegg said DTE owns 3,100 street lights in the city. Port Huron owns about 100.

After the upgrades, Simons said the city can expect to see a slight decrease in its lighting bill.

“There’s a small savings there,” he said. “Not as much as LEDs, which can save up to 30 percent, but there will be some savings that I can’t put an estimate on. The lighting will have the same type of brightness, just a lower wattage.”

The change to a parallel circuit is a significant improvement in reliability, Clegg said. If one light is damaged in any way, it does not impact the others.

As for their appearance, Clegg said the upgraded lights will not be any different.

“I think the average person who looks at them wouldn’t tell the difference,” Clegg said. “DTE replaced the lamps and the wiring, so most of the work is underground. The pole is identical.”

DTE Energy workers will not need access to homes, but some digging might be necessary, Simons said.

Anyone with questions regarding the project may contact DTE Energy’s Community Lighting department at (800) 548-4655 or visit dteenergy.com/lights for project status updates.

“When the project begins, residents should expect intermittent lane closures along Pine Grove that will allow line crews to work safely,” Simons said.

Simons said there are no other street lighting upgrades within St. Clair County planned for the near future.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 13, 2015)

Community collaboration draws investors to St. Clair County for 2014

Baker College of Port Huron’s Culinary Institute of Michigan, DoubleTree by Hilton and the Blue Water Convention Center were developed by John Wheeler. (Mark Rummel | Times Herald)

Baker College of Port Huron’s Culinary Institute of Michigan, DoubleTree by Hilton and the Blue Water Convention Center were developed by John Wheeler. (Mark Rummel | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

From public safety to multi-million dollar developments, St. Clair County communities are working together.

Officials said the decision to work collaboratively started when the economy crumbled a few years ago, with the results of the new regional approach becoming more tangible in 2014.

Dan Casey, chief executive officer of the St. Clair County Economic Development Alliance, said the most visible success is along the St. Clair River in Port Huron, with the DoubleTree by Hilton and the Blue Water Convention Center.

“People from St. Clair County are lucky because there are a lot of counties in the state that don’t support development,” said John Wheeler, who is the president of Orion Real Estate Solutions, a partner of JB Real Estate Development and the developer of the DoubleTree and the convention center.

The convention center needed to be connected to a nationally flagged hotel so it could be financed. Wheeler attended meetings with county commissioners, Port Huron officials and the head of the Business Convention Bureau.

Two years and several meetings later, Wheeler said the financing was completed.

“I could tell they put a lot of research into the convention center,” Wheeler said. “(Former Port Huron city manager) Bruce (Brown) was the first to call me about developing a possible hotel that would connect to it. But those (group) meetings had a heavy influence on my decision.”

St. Clair County administrator Bill Kauffman said the community collaboration includes bringing together county board members, legislators, state agencies and other county staff to assist communities with potential investment projects.

The collaboration for the convention center involved several government agencies, including the Michigan Department of Transportation, Michigan Economic Development Corporation, St. Clair County Brownfield Development Authority, the Visitors Convention Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Several times a month this year (in 2014), groups like this would be asked to meet with a local community and a potential developer,” Kauffman said. “The purpose of this effort was to demonstrate the level of cooperation that exists in our community and depth of support that can be brought to the table on behalf of a project.”

Kauffman said the EDA would get a group of bankers together to sit with the developers to discuss or assist in financing the project.

“When you can demonstrate to a potential investor that everybody is working together, it tends to signal to the development community that we are going to do what we can to help their investment,” Kauffman said.

Casey said collaborations started in 2009 when 150 people from different committees across the county met and developed a strategic plan called Blue Meets Green.

The county didn’t begin to see the success that stems from the collaboration until 2014 because plans take time to develop, Casey said.

“A lot of the groundwork that allowed this year to show its potential occurred because of the work in 2009,” Casey said. “It was an organic process.”

For 2015, Casey said he would like to see the collaboration effort extend toward restoring the St. Clair Inn in St. Clair.

The EDA is working with St. Clair officials to find an investor to purchase the hotel and get it back up and running.

Replacing a power plant

The DTE plant in Marysville took a group effort to attract a developer.

Randall Jostes, chief executive of Commercial Development Company of St. Luis, Missouri, said the city and other county agencies went to great lengths to craft an offering.

Jostes said his first sit-down meeting was with Marysville Mayor Dan Dammon, city manager Randy Fernandez, county chairman Jeff Bohm and Casey.

“We had over 45 people in attendance at the early meetings, and many of those agencies were there,” Jostes said. “They are motivated to make this redevelopment successful. That was something we were looking for.”

Fernandez said they tried to put the right people in the room at one time, so questions developers had could be answered in one meeting.

“By doing that, we know what our marching orders are to keep the process moving along,” Fernandez said. “Nobody can do it alone. You need these collaboration partnerships.”

Brian Phinney and his father purchased the old Wonder Hostess Bakery Outlet building at 808 Gratiot Blvd. in September with the intent to open Harsens Island Brewery.

The Rochester resident said they were looking at different cities, but chose Marysville after meeting with city and county officials.

“We had a few meetings over the course of eight months with Randy Fernandez and a couple of commissioners, and everyone was very enthusiastic,” he said. “It’s important to have good support from the municipalities to get things going.”

Port Huron city manager James Freed said one of the state agencies that is brought in for collaboration with communities is the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The Blue Water Young Professionals came together and helped write a grant for the river walk and received $40,000 from the DNR.

Since the city received grants from the community foundation, it allowed the Young Professionals and the city’s recreation department to collaborate on the grant application.

“If they were not partnered with a municipality, this grant would not be available,” said Nancy Winzer, director of the Port Huron Parks and Recreation Department.

When state agencies are looking at suitors for their grants, they prefer groups that collaborate, Freed said.

“People who give grants don’t want their money being the only money in the pot. They want to see leverage to get something bigger done. When the state gives us money, we are able to match that with local dollars and local partnerships.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 9, 2015)