Marine City to hold town hall meeting in anticipation of budget hearings

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

Mayor Raymond Skotarczyk said he has been approached numerous times about holding a town meeting over the years.

Now residents will have their chance.

With the public budget hearings set to begin, the Marine City Commission scheduled a town hall meeting to take place in a more “informal setting” for residents to voice their opinions.

The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Washington Life Center, 403 N. Mary St.

“The budget workshops are coming up and we would like feedback from residents,” Skotarczyk said. “This will give us a better idea of what they want us to spend money on. In the past, I have been approached by people who complained about the access to meetings.”

Budget meetings are scheduled for March 24-26 from 6-8 p.m. at the Marine City Fire Hall, 200 S. Parker St.

Commissioner Lisa Hendrick said there was nothing specific that prompted the commission to hold the meeting. She said it is important for residents to not only show up to the town hall meeting, but speak their minds as well.

“We want to hear what the tax payers are expecting,” she said. “Are there things they want to be cut? What do they want us to spend money on?”

Hendrick said she does not like the format at the regular meetings, where public comment only allows for residents to engage the commission for five minutes.

“They can see us twice a month, but they shy away from the formal setting,” she said. “We’ve all been wanting to have these meetings, but things get so busy at times.”

According to Skotarczyk, there have been two other town hall meetings during his time as mayor, but were held by the chamber of commerce.

“Chief (Don Tillery) and I made ourselves available as a ‘meet the mayor and chief’ kind of thing six or seven months ago,” he said. “We got very few people to that. However, if people show up and they think this meeting was worthwhile, I would consider holding more of these.”

Tillery, Marine City’s police chief and interim city manager, said Washington Life Center was selected as the location because it was one of the buildings in town that could hold a large number of people.

The venue was also chosen because it provided a more comfortable setting.

“We are trying to get people involved,” Tillery said. “This is a big push by the mayor. He wanted to reach out and make sure people had a chance to talk to the commissioners in an informal setting.”

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 March 10, 2015)

A musical experience on both sides of the border

Principal conductor, Douglas Bianchi, conducts the orchestra during the national anthem Saturday, Feb 28, during a concert at McMorran Theatre. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

Principal conductor, Douglas Bianchi, conducts the orchestra during the national anthem Saturday, Feb 28, during a concert at McMorran Theatre. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

It’s an exposure to classical music with flair.

That’s how Bev O’Brien describes a performance by the International Symphony Orchestra.

The orchestra is unique as it crosses the U.S.-Canadian border by performing in Port Huron and Sarnia on back-to-back nights.

Having been to nearly every concert since 2007, O’Brien doesn’t know why anyone would pass up the chance to listen to the affordable performances.

“They are missing something that is very beautiful,” the Richmond resident said. “I tell people if they like to feel music instead of just listening to it, bring a person to hear the ISO.”

The orchestra was formed in 1957 when the Port Huron String Ensemble and the Little Orchestra Society of Sarnia merged together.

Both communities realized they were too small to support their own orchestras, in turn creating a unique feel for a symphony.

Anne Brown, who serves as the orchestra’s executive director, said it is the international aspect of the orchestra that gives it its identity.

“To have the opportunity to hear work like that right here in our own community is great,” she said. “You don’t have to go to Detroit, you don’t have to go to Toronto, and you don’t have to pay $100 a ticket.”

More than 50 years later, their music can be heard from the halls of McMorran Theater in downtown Port Huron and the Imperial Theatre in Sarnia.

From a small origin of only two concerts a year, the orchestra’s activities have evolved to the present season, which includes 12 series performances, several youth education concerts and a number of community events.

Brown said the number of shows allows the orchestra to feature a wide array of talented musicians and guest artists in each event.

The same performances are repeated the night after on the other side of the border in order to retain guest artists.

“The majority are brought in from out of town,” Brown said. “So, to facilitate their schedules and from a cost basis it makes sense to keep their time here as short as possible.”

Orchestra pieces require a varying number of members from 45 to 65 musicians.

The symphony added singers in 1980s to include opera, Broadway and musical theatre to the orchestra’s schedule. Since then the “Symphony Singers” have given a new feel to the orchestra, taking part in several concerts each season.

If it’s more of a romanticized piece that is set on a large scale like the orchestra’s season finale, more musicians are required.

“My favorite part about all this is when you hear the orchestra and see the response of the audience to the music,” Brown said. “It is just tremendously gratifying. You recognize why all of those days of frustration and worry are all worthwhile.”

Richmond resident Laurel Emerson couldn’t agree more.

In fact, Emerson enjoys the orchestra so much, she sometimes ventures to Canada to watch some of their shows. She does this because of her younger roots.

“I used to listen to records when I was younger which had classical music,” Emerson said. “I like the fact that I can see the musicians play in person.”

Individuals on each side of the border work hard to maintain the continuation of this musical tradition. Music — whether it be hard rock or jazz — contributes greatly to the emotional and cultural well-being of their communities.

The success of the orchestra comes from thousands of hours by volunteer associations, musicians, singers and board members.

However, some positions are more important than others. An orchestra cannot operate without its leader.

As conductor, Douglas Bianchi came to the ISO with substantial experience as an associate music professor at Wayne State University.

“This is clearly unique,” Bianchi said. “Being Canadian and living in the states, I just feel like this is where I meant to be.”

With five years as the orchestra’s conductor under his belt, Bianchi knows what newcomers can expect when they attend. He also knows what they can get out of it.

“People think you are supposed to like everything you hear, but some of the greats have written some duds,” he said. “You may find your mind wandering and that’s OK. I think people have a misguided view of what happens in the orchestra. They just need to enjoy it for what it is — music.”

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 March 28, 2015)

Come for the fair, stay for the fun

Kelsey Kemp, 19, of Smiths Creek, competes in Western horsemanship on her horse, Edward, during the St. Clair County 4-H and Youth Fair at Goodells County Park. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

Kelsey Kemp, 19, of Smiths Creek, competes in Western horsemanship on her horse, Edward, during the St. Clair County 4-H and Youth Fair at Goodells County Park. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

The intermingling smells of popcorn, fried dough, cows and horses means one thing — the St. Clair County Youth Fair has returned.

Goodells County Park will play host to the county fair that brings with it 77 years of tradition as well as a new bag of tricks.

Fair Board President Rob Usakowski said the fair will attract more than 80,000 from July 20-25.

Across the week of activities run by the St. Clair County Agricultural Society are animal shows with beef, swine and horses.

With close to 10,000 project entrees last year, Usakowski said the fair doesn’t just include farm animals.

“Competitions range from photography, cake decorating and animals,” he said. “We have one of the larger horse shows in the region.”

This year the fair is bringing back its motocross event that has become a crowd favorite. Crews haul in dirt and sand to construct a track for dirt bike and four-wheeler races.

Toward the end of the week, the events get bigger with demolition derbies, figure-8 races and tractor maneuvering.

Based out of Lansing, the country band called Gunner & The Grizzly Boys will be coming to the fairgrounds to perform during the opening ceremonies on July 20.

“Last year was the first time in years we brought in music,” Usakowski said. “We are trying to bring in a new crowd and music is one of the ways to do that. The teenage girls are going to be happy with the group we chose.”

Animal Oasis will be bringing their petting farm to the fair with a large variety of domestic and rare breeds of animals for visitors to pet and feed.

This is one of the main reasons a fair can be so entertaining for some of the urban attendees.

“You’re going to get hands on with animals,” Usakowski said. “There will be kids in the barn who will let you pet the animals and feed them. It can be a pretty big draw for kids who live in the city.”

Lenox Township resident Ruby Walker has raised poultry for years and plans on participating in 4-H.

The 9-year-old has been showing for the last four years, however, this year will mark her first time as a real 4-Her.

As a Clover Sprout, Walker was too young to compete.

Walker came to her first 4-H fair when she was 2 years old. Although she doesn’t remember it, Walker plans on getting the most out of this year’s festivities.

“Even if I don’t win I plan on having a fun time by competing,” Walker said. “It’s what I love the most.”

Within the first three days of the fair, beef, swine and sheep are judged with the children being awarded that fabled blue ribbon.

After months of preparation on their animals and other projects, the children are rewarded at the live auction sale.

Around 600 animals are sold that night with the majority going to fill people’s freezers. The fair will send the purchased animals to a local slaughterhouse or buyers can bring them back home.

In some cases, 4-H participants have been working with their animals for nine months in anticipation of their first payday.

Rick Ruemenapp, a director on the fair’s board, said 4-H has a way of molding the county’s next generation.

“It’s all about the kids,” he said. “Seeing the smile on some of these kids’ faces or where it is their first year showing and you can see their excitement. That to me is priceless.”

Usakowski expects there to be close to 1,000 kids to participate in the 4-H portions of the fair.

“I think the work effort in 4-H that you see from the set up and the raising of animals produces some really good children,” he said. “It’s nice to see them get rewarded for all the work they put in.”

Addyline Doughty, 13, of Greenwood Township, serves as an ambassador for the 4-H court.

As ambassador she takes part in parades and represents the 4-H in order to educate others about it.

“It’s a new learning experience,” Doughty said. “4-H has benefited me by teaching me how to get out there and to not be scared of people. To try new things and to take responsibly and care for an animal.”

After her mom introduced her to 4-H as a toddler, Doughty has been raising rabbits for nine years as well as sheep and cattle for three years.

Doughty couldn’t be more excited for this year.

“I try to visit the youth fair because I know it was a very good experience for me and it can be for others,” Doughty said. “I’ve even made a few friends through this.”

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 March 28, 2015)

Take a ride to Fort Gratiot on ‘Cruise Night’

A Crobra cruises south on Military Street during Cruise Night in downtown Port Huron. Classics and customs made up the line of chrome and rubber that stretched from Pine Grove Park south to Oak Street. (Wendy Torello | Times Herald)

A Crobra cruises south on Military Street during Cruise Night in downtown Port Huron. Classics and customs made up the line of chrome and rubber that stretched from Pine Grove Park south to Oak Street. (Wendy Torello | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

Jamie Cameron has been to every Cruise Night since it first flooded the streets of downtown Port Huron in 1984.

The Port Huron resident can still remember when his father used to let him sit in the bed of his 1934 Ford hotrod and drive at a turtle’s pace from Port Huron to Fort Gratiot.

Thirty years later, Cameron plans on driving the same hotrod in what has become Blue Water Cruise Weekend.

“Our whole family will be bringing at least four cars out there, including my dad’s Ford,” Cameron said. “You go there to see the people to catch up with. The cars and the people are the main attractions.”

The cruise begins on the last Friday of June along M-25 in Fort Gratiot and the north end of Port Huron.

With estimated crowds at more than 50,000, Fort Gratiot is expecting a prolonged stay this summer.

The Keith Peterson Memorial Car Show was moved to the Saturday after the cruise, with fireworks being lit Saturday night. The pivotal car show will keep its time and location from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the Carson’s parking lot of the Birchwood Mall.

A couple years ago when Port Huron turned the event over to its neighbor to the north, the Fort Gratiot Business Association joined with township officials in an effort to bolster Blue Water Cruise.

As the Fort Gratiot community development coordinator, Kristy Jones has been meeting with the association to change what was normally a one-day event into a weekend festival.

Jones said it was a way to keep the crowd in the eastern portion of St. Clair County for a prolonged period of time.

“It didn’t make sense to have the car show on a Sunday when everyone left on Friday,” she said. “By moving it to Saturday and adding fireworks, the attendees stay here longer.”

However, it’s Friday night that proves to be one of the most festive atmospheres for the Blue Water Area in June.

Businesses along the Pine Grove strip that turns into 24th Avenue welcome cars and spectators with live music at Cheap Charlie’s and DJs at Big Boy and Chili’s.

“There are a lot of car clubs that converge on that one area for viewing and a chance for some live music,” Jones said. “It’s a very festive atmosphere.”

Those same businesses erect customer appreciation tents in their parking lots, while pizza is sold along the sidewalks as the cars line up for miles.

Port Huron Township resident Ron Steward has been on the event’s committee for nearly a decade. He joined their ranks to ensure the event retains its main intent.

“It’s an event that the community loves,” Steward said. “Everyone has an old car back in their memories. A lot of people will say, ‘I wish I had that car back.’ This event brings those type of vehicles back in physical form.”

The annual cruise has come a long way since it began with just eight vintage vehicles owned by Blue Water Auto Restorers Club members.

The car show alone averages 150 vehicles a year.

“I’ve been a big fan of the cruise for years now. Plus, we have a community that truly embraces the event,” Steward said.

The event doesn’t just bring out the local cruisers.

Steward said he has seen car owners from the Detroit area, Canada and some from the west side of the state.

The different regions have produced a larger array of cars for viewing.

“I love seeing what other people have done with their projects,” Steward said. “I have a 1968 Cheville that I redid in 1996. We’ve taken it to a few car shows, but I just prefer the driving aspect as opposed to letting it sit for people to look at.”

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 March 28, 2015)

Port Huron Council approves contract for park improvements

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

Port Huron Council approved a contract with an engineering firm worth more than $57,000 to complete designs for the Lakeside Park improvements.

The contract with Rowe Professional Services Company for $57,561 was approved by a vote of 5 to 1. Council member Ken Harris was the lone vote against the resolution.

The overall project is estimated to cost about $2.5 million, and include three new pavilions, a new parking lot, an archway into the park, new picnic tables and grills, improved bathrooms and concessions, playground area and splash pad.

Harris said that looking at the size of the project, he didn’t have the confidence in having Rowe Professional Services Company complete the designs.

City Manager James Freed said when the city puts out a bid on a project of this size, it also submits a request for qualifications to see what the company has accomplished.

“In addition to the request, I’ve personally worked with Rowe Professional Services,” Freed said. “I’ve seen their work firsthand and am confident they can get the job done.”

The city’s parks and recreation department received $295,000 for those improvements from the Department of Natural Resources Trust Fund program. That grant will be matched by about $120,000 in money from the county parks and recreation tax.

The Stebbins Family Fund, through the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, has offered to match up to $43,000 in donations to go toward the splash pad.

So far, $8,000 has been raised toward the grant, and two grants have been applied for to reach the $43,000 goal.

The park improvement design plan is expected to be completed by the end of July. Plans for the splash pad should be finalized by April 24.

The scope of the work includes designing a splash pad area north of the restroom building.

The second phase would be designing Lakeside Park improvements, including waterfront improvements, festival lawn area, trellis, Americans with Disabilities Act compliant beach access mat, paved sidewalk connecting to the parking lot, site furnishings, benches, foot-wash feature, drinking fountain and associated utilities.

Council member Rachel Cole’s resignation was accepted by the council

Alphonso Amos — the next highest vote getter in the 2013 election — can complete Cole’s term if accepted, which runs through November 2016.

Amos — the program coordinator for SONS Outreach and scoutreach executive for the Boys Scouts of America — was not present at Monday’s meeting, but could be sworn in as early as the March 23 meeting.

Port Huron Clerk Sue Child said she will be sending him a letter in two days.

Cole was sworn onto council in August following the death of Brian Moeller. She previously was elected in 2011 and served a two-year term on council.

Mayor Pauline Repp and council members gave their thoughts on losing Cole.

“She assured me she will try to be active in the community where she can be,” Repp said. “You can still expect to see her around the community.”

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 March 9, 2015)

Transit authority names new bus center using combination of suggestions

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

Blue Water Area Transit has chosen a name for its new transfer hub.

The new station, which will be built in the south McMorran parking lot in downtown Port Huron, will be known as the Blue Water Transit Bus Center.

“There were a lot of great suggestions, but we ended up combining the most commonly used phrases,” said Jim Wilson, Blue Water Area Transit general manager.

The term “Blue Water” was the most frequently used name, with “Transit,” “Center” and “Bus” following in popularity.

“We had well over 90 suggestions when factoring in the names we pulled off of Facebook,” Wilson said. “We appreciate the interest people had in helping us choose a name.”

Some of the names suggested were “The Exchange,” “Bus Port,” “The McMorran Acheson Blue Water Transit Center,” “The Illumination Station” and “The Port Huron Bus Center.”

A groundbreaking ceremony 11 a.m. March 16 at the site. Construction is to start this spring.

A mix of federal, state and local funds will pay for the bus hub — 70 percent with federal funds, 17.5 percent from state funds and the remaining 12.5 percent out of the transit agency’s funds.

The center will provide passengers with a heated waiting area, restrooms and bus schedule displays. Maintenance and security staff will be on site during hours of operation.

Blue Water Area Transit bought 3.8 acres in January 2014 for the bus center. The new transfer center will take up about one quarter of that, Wilson said.

Blue Water Area Transit runs a fleet of natural gas buses. In 2014, it had more than 1.33 million riders.

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 March 9, 2015)

A bushy craft: Best beards require loving care, patience

Sadaat Hossain grows a new beard every January for the annual Stache Bash. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

Sadaat Hossain grows a new beard every January for the annual Stache Bash. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

Wearing a beard takes more than follicles.

And sometimes, even that isn’t enough.

“While beard balms and other products can help, a thorough understanding of your hair is a crucial and often overlooked part of growing your beard,” David Herrera of Standard Barber Co. in Detroit advised. “Once you know your hair, you will know more about what your beard can and can’t do.”

Before even attempting a beard, he said, a man should consult a barber for advice on what he can get out of his facial hair. Some guys can’t get away with bushy. Some guys shouldn’t try the stubbly look. And others really probably ought to stick to the daily razor regimen.

But if he and his barber decide on a plan, Sam Buffa, owner of Fellow Barber in Detroit, suggests going all-in.

“It’s one of those things where there are periods that your beard might not look how you want it to look,” Herrera said. “If you haven’t done it before don’t bail out too early. It’s a process.”

The process isn’t necessarily a simple one.

“You have to treat it in a lot of ways you would the hair on your head,” Buffa said. “I use conditioning shampoo. You can get dry skin in the same way with your other hair. Also using some sort of product like beard oil or a light styling crème to bring in some moisture wouldn’t hurt either.”

A beard needs grooming at least every other week. That means maintenance with scissors or a guarded trimmer to keep its length and shape.

However, when it comes to shaving the neckline and trimming under the beard, Buffa recommends daily attention with a razor or shaver.

Artemus Whitmore uses beard balm to keep his facial hair looking good. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

Artemus Whitmore uses beard balm to keep his facial hair soft and looking good. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

Artemus Whitmore, a 39-year-old direct care worker from Port Huron, uses beard balm to keep his luxurious chestnut curls looking their best. He uses shea butter soap to shampoo it, and avoids all petroleum-based products because that dries out his whiskers.

Dan Thompson, 43, has worn a full beard for about five years. But he’s allowed it to grow for the past three.

“I just thought it looked kinda cool,” said the Port Huron man. “You’ve got to make sure you shampoo and condition it like you would the hair on your head, brush it.”

Thompson said he sometimes applies beard oil to help keep it soft and conditioned.

“It kind of takes care of itself,” he said.

Sadaat Hossain, 32, starts a new beard every January. His chin-whiskers are in training for the annual Stache Bash.

“Normally, I have some pretty wicked mutton chops,” the owner of the Raven Cafe in Port Huron said.

Hossain’s grooming involves keeping it trimmed for shape and uniformity, but also giving it a good wash as needed.

He says guys need to keep one thing in mind when leaving behind the baby-face look: “Work with what you got.”

And don’t be afraid to take it to work.

Buffa said a full beard is a more acceptable in the workplace today than it was 10 years ago. The “Don Draper look” is no longer the norm in an office setting.

“I’ve had a beard for 13 years at different lengths and it’s just now hit its peak,” he said. “It’s not just happening in this country. We have some barber friends from Italy who have big, crazy beards with mustaches that are oiled up.”

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 March 8, 2015)