Feeling the force: Celebration Cinema says ‘Star Wars’ tickets still available

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens 7 p.m. tonight at Celebration Cinema in Benton Township. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens 7 p.m. tonight at Celebration Cinema in Benton Township. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Millions have been counting down the days for the long anticipated return of the galactic saga known to many generations as “Star Wars.”

Celebration Cinema in Benton Harbor has been prepping for the release and decided to throw in a few fan favorites for opening night Thursday.

General Manager Dan Rimpel said while the national release is Friday, many theaters – including the Celebration in Benton Harbor – will have several pre-showings of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

“We’re going to have a lot of pre-shows that are starting here,” Rimpel said. “The 7 p.m. is the first showing, but that’s already sold out. The next one after that is a 7:45 p.m. showing, which is sold out.”

Other than the first two showings, Rimpel said the others Thursday night are still available. Celebration will have several showings, with the last one being at 10:30 p.m.

The newest entry into the “Star Wars” canon will be shown on eight different screens through opening night and the first weekend. Rimpel said of those eight screens, two will be dedicated to 3D and one auditorium will have D-Box.

“We have so many show times that it is hard to predict how many sold-out shows we’ll have,” Rimpel said. “We do anticipate the crowds to be pretty big. For opening night and the first weekend, we’ll have 23 shows. There are plenty of tickets available. A lot of people get that preconceived notion that everything will be sold out – but it won’t be.”

Celebration Cinema will do something special for opening night as well. Rimpel said they will have people dressed as Darth Vader and Chewbacca to interact with guests who are there to see Episode VII.

Fans will have a photo opportunity with a “Star Wars”-themed backdrop in the lobby.

“This is going to be the first time we are going all-out with characters and photo ops,” Rimpel said. “It will be a different experience this time around. However, all regular ticket prices will apply. We’re not charging extra to be the first ones to see it.”

A Celebration Cinema in Grand Rapids is doing something special for the most die-hard of fans.

The Star Wars Marathon Event will show all seven movies in chronological order. Guests will see each of the six previously released “Star Wars” episodes in digital 2D beginning with “The Phantom Menace” before concluding with the opening of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 3D.”

That marathon has a run time of 1,050 minutes, with the first movie starting at 4 a.m.

Moviegoers are allowed to dress up as their favorite Star Wars character, but costumes must fall within safety guidelines for Celebration.

According to the theater’s website, any masks, decorations or make-up that completely obscure the face are not allowed on guests over the age of 12. Costumes or clothing that could reasonably make others uncomfortable are not allowed.

Any weapons that are real or fake – including light sabers – are also not allowed.

“That’s part of the experience for some of our guests,” Rimpel said. “However, we will be enforcing our costume policy to not compromise the safety and comfortability of our guests. We don’t allow masks or replica weapons. Make-up and face paint is OK, but it cannot cover the face completely or be too intrusive that it might scare anybody.”

To learn more about dress codes or buying tickets beforehand visit www.celebrationcinema.com.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 17, 2015)

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Benton Township board approves 2 percent pay hike for municpal employees

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Benton Township will add two full-time police officers in 2016 while replacing a retired firefighter with two part-timers, according to the proposed budget.

“(Full-time officers) cost more than staffing the part-timers because we are going to pay benefits, pensions and health insurance,” said Kelli Nelson, the township’s contracted accountant. “It will cost a little bit more, but we think it is a better fit for the department to have those full-time employees there.”

Nelson told trustees Tuesday the budget was based on no increases in the tax rate millages.

“The tax revenue is budgeted to remain relatively consistent over the actual income received in 2015,” Nelson said.

The three operating funds – general, fire and police funds – are within 1 percent of being break even when combined.

The township’s general fund is budgeted for a surplus of $35,000. In 2015, Nelson said the township saw an increase in development, which will lead to more revenue in the following year. The township got an additional 2.7 percent increase in funding from state shared revenue.

Nelson said the general fund will cover a few budgeted items highlighted by the three expected elections in 2016, updating the township’s 10-year master plan, repairing and sealing municipal parking lots and making minor park improvements.

“These are some of the more noteworthy expenditures,” Nelson said. “Those parking lots are ones that are municipally owned, like the fire station and water plant.”

Budget figures show the general fund will transfer $125,000 to the police fund. In part, this will help pay for the filling of two positions – two full-time police officers, which were previously filled with part-time employees. The police fund also calls for buying two police cars to help maintain the township’s fleet.

Budgeted expenditures for the police fund are about $240,000 – or 6.9 percent – more than what was projected for 2015.

Nelson said another factor in the budgeted increase is the annual required pension contribution to the police and fire pension plans. The police fund is budgeted to use $50,000 of its fund balance for these added expenses.

The fire fund budget calls for a $40,000 use of its fund balance.

The two-year FEMA grant the township has been using will end in April, which leaves the fire budget with $50,000 less revenue. After one of the township’s full-time firefighters retired this year, the position will be replaced by part-timers.

A large line item in the fire budget includes the second annual debt payment of $150,525 on the three-year fire truck loan. The loan, which was used to buy a new fire truck in 2015, charges 1.15 percent interest.

Other agenda items

The board approved a 2 percent increase for all municipal employees in 2016.

Supervisor Kevin White will get $27,540, Clerk Carolyn Phillips will get $53,060, Treasurer Debbie Boothby will get $49,939, and trustees will receive $94 per diem. Nelson said White chose to once again reduce his compensation as supervisor, saving the township about $30,000.

“The Township Board has had to make some tough decisions in the past few years,” White said, “and the 2016 budget is a testament to the fact that they were good decisions that have allowed our township to have continued financial stability.”

Three annual resolutions that require board approval were adopted Tuesday.

They were a resolution to authorize the board to receive and dispose of property; a resolution to designate Chase Bank, Fifth Third Bank, Chemical Bank, Horizon Bank and United Federal Credit Union as depositories for township funds; and a resolution to establish an authorization procedure for expenses.

The authorization procedure allows for the township’s supervisor, clerk, treasurer and comptroller to approve expenses of up to $4,000 without prior written approval from the board.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

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

Retiring Royalton Township manager to get vacation buy-out

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Soon-to-be retired Royalton Township Manager Jim Soteriou is getting a vacation buy-out for the allotted time off he has collected this year.

When trustees met Monday, the board agreed to give Soteriou – who is scheduled to retire Dec. 30 – about $2,500 for his two weeks of unused vacation.

Steve Tilley, who served as supervisor and is taking over as manager, said it was an easy decision for the board to pay Soteriou.

“He has some stuff he is trying to finish up, which he started with the township,” Tilley said. “It made sense that he finish those odds and ends rather than have me take them over. He’s got about a week and a half to finish it off.”

Soteriou served as the head of maintenance for Royalton Township before taking on the added job of manager 14 years ago.

Tilley, who has served on the board for 27 years, became the township’s new manager Nov. 10. Tilley said he has been doing everything new that has come across the manager’s desk, while Soteriou is finishing his projects.

Since Tilley was named manager unanimously by the board, he resigned from his part-time position as supervisor. Robert Basselman was then chosen by the board in the same Nov. 10 meeting to be the next supervisor.

“Our outgoing manager was also on the fire board and he has chosen not to stay on that,” Tilley said. “They have not appointed anybody yet, so that will go to the January meeting.”

In the Monday meeting, the board reappointed Rachel Bernard, Brian Lieberg, Jay Ackerman and Joe Pater to three-year terms on the Planning Commission. Lieberg was the commission’s chair and Bernard was its vice chair.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

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

Stevensville restaurant gives away food, gifts to children

Kamarea Johnson, 9, center, joins the I’m Saving Myself choir as they sing Christmas carols Saturday at Tosi’s Restaurant in Stevensville. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Kamarea Johnson, 9, center, joins the I’m Saving Myself choir as they sing Christmas carols Saturday at Tosi’s Restaurant in Stevensville. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE  — Tosi’s Restaurant opened earlier than what it’s accustomed to on Saturday.

General manager Dan McCrery and his staff concluded their 54th year of holding free Christmas dinners for local children who might not get a Christmas of their own.

“For a lot of these kids, this is the only Christmas they will have,” McCrery said. “It’s a long-standing tradition with the restaurant.”

McCrery said four generations of his family have been doing this now, which included his sons, who pitched in to help serve food Saturday.

From ages 1 to 15, children from across the Twin Cities area flocked to the Stevensville restaurant. On the menu was fried chicken, spaghetti and fries along with cookies and ice cream. Some 450 pieces of chicken were provided by Gordon Food Service, McCrery said.

Assistant manager Amy Paulin, McCrery’s sister-in-law, said she has been taking part in this family tradition for 28 years.

“It’s family. My mom owns the restaurant and my dad used to be Santa every year,” Paulin said. “He passed away in 2006, so we keep doing it. He loved doing it. We’re honored that we can do this for these kids. It’s something nice to do during the holidays.”

Afterward, more than 100 children met Santa – who was being portrayed by Tim Bammann of Di Pisa’s Pizza in Stevensville.

Tim Bammann plays Santa Claus as he hands out presents to children Saturday at Tosi’s Restaurant in Stevensville. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Tim Bammann plays Santa Claus as he hands out presents to children Saturday at Tosi’s Restaurant in Stevensville. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Upon lining up to meet him, each child was given a present to unwrap. Paulin said the Salvation Army drops the gifts off the day before, which the staff keeps in the back until Saturday. The donated gifts come pre-wrapped and are labeled to determine if the gift is meant for a boy or a girl as well as what age range.

Kyle Corzine, 8, of Benton Harbor said he has been to the Tosi’s event in the past. It’s something he looks forward to each year.

“My favorite part is getting presents from Santa,” Corzine said. “Last year I got Legos and a (toy) car.”

Damaria Harris, 10, said she has been coming for the free holiday dinner for the last two years. While she does appreciate the gifts the Salvation Army gives away, the Benton Harbor resident said the food is great.

“It’s really good,” she said. “The fries are my favorite.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

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

Southwest Michigan jobless rates increase moderately

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Unemployment rates throughout Southwest Michigan remained flat or increased slightly in October.

According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, this was anticipated due to the typical seasonal employment changes. As hiring continued in the education sector, jobs were on the decline in leisure and hospitality services.

However, all Southwest Michigan labor markets had an October unemployment rate that was lower than the unadjusted statewide rate of 5 percent. The jobless rate increased by 0.1 percentage point in three of the four Southwest Michigan counties from September to October.

Allegan County’s unemployment rate rose slightly from 3.2 percent to 3.3 percent. Berrien County’s jobless rate remained at 4.3 percent, while Cass County increased from 4.1 percent in September to 4.2 percent in October.

Van Buren County kept its moniker as the highest unemployed county in the Southwest Michigan region, increasing from 4.6 percent to 4.7 percent.

The United States finished with a 4.8 percent unemployment rate in October, also coming in under Michigan’s overall jobless rate.

Jobs in Berrien County

In October, Berrien County gained 400 positions in local education as this sector returned to full staffing. However, the area also lost 400 jobs seasonally in leisure and hospitality services. Jobs in professional and business services expanded by 300, and employment in trade, transportation, warehousing and utilities rose by 200.

Total nonfarm payroll jobs in Berrien County inched up by 700 in October to a total of 63,500.

Since October 2014, leisure and hospitality added 900 positions, and employment in professional and business services progressed by 500.

Employment in the sector of trade, transportation, warehousing and utilities decreased by 200 when compared to last year. Current October payroll jobs were still 3,200 below the highest level attained over the past 10 years.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

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

Staying in tune with Christmas: Whirlpool Holiday Band strikes a chord at The Whitcomb

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Joe Zahrn sang and danced Friday in front of residents at the Whitcomb Tower Retirement Residence in downtown St. Joseph.

Zahrn, a Whirlpool project delivery leader, was there with the Whirlpool Holiday Band, playing Christmas songs and spreading holiday cheer.

The band is comprised of 18 Whirlpool employees and retirees who spent their Friday playing at each Whirlpool building in the Twin Cities from 7 a.m. through the later part of the afternoon. They ended their day at The Whitcomb in style.

Dressed in red and black garb, band members played festive music to a crowd of more than 50. Among them were a drum set, bells, a keyboard, guitar, bass, flute, trombone and violin. A trio of singers choreographed a few moves, which included Zahrn moving among the tables at The Whitcomb, serenading a front-row attendee in the process.

“I tend to see people I have seen in the past here, so it’s great to connect with them,” said Zahrn, who joined the band in the late 1990s. “I am just thrilled to be a part of this. To take one day off from doing everything we do, it feels great to provide entertainment for others.”

The Whirlpool Holiday Band has been making its rounds and playing Christmas jingles that range from “Silver Bells” to a little diddy about a reindeer with a red nose for more than 50 years. The band normally holds only two practices in the week leading up to the seven shows they do in one day.

Ron Gallert, a technology consultant at the St. Joseph Technology Center, runs the band in his spare time. Like Zahrn, he also joined the band 19 years ago.

“I pick up the trumpet two weeks of every year for this,” he said. “I played in grade school and high school, but now I don’t play it at any other time than around Christmas. It’s great because you get to play music and not go to work.”

The band doesn’t have a lot of turnover, Gallert said. This year the appliance making company produced two new members, which included a concert violinist.

Most of the people have been in the band for at least five years, though, as Gallert said he doesn’t recruit new members. He said he gets some emails throughout the year if somebody hears somebody wants to join.

“For those of us who don’t play on a regular basis, we are whipped by the end of the day,” Gallert said. “This is by far the most appreciative crowd we come across (at The Whitcomb). However, we did have sizeable crowds each place we went.”

Steve Pearson, a guitarist and lead engineer, said in his years playing at the different Whirlpool locations, he’s noticed co-workers, directors and higher-up executives get into the Christmas spirit when the band plays.

“With some of the upper level management who play with us, if you look at their daily calendar, they are triple-booked for most of the day for meetings,” Pearson said. “But there isn’t a practice or a gig they have missed in years. That gives you a level of importance. Today we had general managers and vice presidents listening to us.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 12, 2015)

Sprint retailer opens in St. Joseph Township Plaza

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Wireless Land in St. Joseph is the latest store to open in the St. Joseph Township Plaza.

Located between Five Guys and Panera at 3260 Niles Road, the Sprint retailer is in the middle of its holiday hours.

Justin Arthur, manager of Wireless Land St. Joseph, said the company chose the location because it felt there was an unaddressed need in the area, as well as its proximity to I-94.

“We chose this location because we felt that this was a market that has been neglected, and we decided we need to serve the local residents in St. Joe, with our best value in wireless,” Arthur said. “It’s time that St. Joseph can have this opportunity.”

Arthur said Wireless Land’s other Southwest Michigan locations include Niles and Benton Township.

The Sprint-authorized retailer does account maintenance, helps customers upgrade to new devices and gives advice. Arthur said the store will focus on customer service, but they are not considered a service and repair store.

Wireless Land opened Oct. 12, but had its ribbon cutting Friday.

The Sprint retailer is running its holiday hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. It’s normal hours will be 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.

Other than the store’s manager, there is one full-time employee and two part-timers. Arthur said anyone interested in applying can send their resume to www.wirelessland.com.

Customers also can call the store with any questions at 408-1071.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

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