Selling ice: Enclosed ice rink has been on the minds of many

Foreign exchange students Thiago Pires Nunes dos Santos of Brazil, Augustin Hap of Belgium, Daryna Vashchuk of Ukraine and Maycie McGowan skate at the Howard Ice Arena in St. Joseph in 2013. (HP file photo)

Foreign exchange students Thiago Pires Nunes dos Santos of Brazil, Augustin Hap of Belgium, Daryna Vashchuk of Ukraine and Maycie McGowan skate at the Howard Ice Arena in St. Joseph in 2013. (HP file photo)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — Berrien County residents are hesitant and eager at the possibility of an enclosed ice rink in Lincoln Township.

At a Lincoln Township Planning Commission meeting Monday night, planners tabled a decision on granting a special use permit that would allow the rink to be built in a residential neighborhood on the southeast corner of Cleveland Avenue and Glenlord Road.

The indoor rink would mean a chance for year-round hockey and skating programs and another attraction for local businesses. However, the arena was met with opposition for nearby homeowners who feel the rink could increase traffic and hamper property values.

The fight for more ice in Berrien County didn’t just begin Monday.

The area is now served by the Howard Ice Arena in St. Joseph, which is a covered – but open air – facility. Local ice enthusiasts for years have lobbied the city of St. Joseph to enclose the arena, but the city has been hesitant to do so.

Parks Superintendent Greg Grothous said to fully enclose the 14-year-old ice arena would be too costly for the city.

“There would be a lot of things that would have to happen,” Grothous said. “It’s not just putting up walls. We would have to change the air handling system and purchase a new Zamboni because of the emissions it puts out. It would probably take a couple million dollars to do it right.”

An ice arena has been on the drawing board for a number of years in Watervliet as part of a county park. In those plans, the county is contemplating a two-sheet enclosed ice rink on property the county owns north of M-140. The property encompasses about 25 acres and the master plan would include parking, green space, a dog park and walking trails.

County parks Director Brian Bailey said they developed the plan in the summer of 2014 for the site of the former Watervliet Paper Co.

With its proximity to downtown Watervliet and I-94, Bailey said it’s a long-term goal that does not have a set timeline.

“We brainstormed what recreation amenity would attract people who are not part of the county offerings at this point,” Bailey said. “We kept coming back to enclosed ice arena. That would be a regional attraction.”

The county ice arena would be about 108,000 square feet and cost more than $18 million – which does not include the park’s amenities or trails.

“Hockey can be a draw. Any place you can get young and elderly folks together is a draw,” Bailey said. “If it’s in an enclosed space with a recreational activity, there’s a spinoff effect in a positive way.”

A new impact

Developer AJ Glowacki has been pursuing the ice rink project for a year and said the 10-acre site near Stevensville could be home to a 35,000- to 40,000-square-foot facility.

The proposed rink at 4137 Cleveland Ave. would have a connected parking lot with about 200 spaces and room for about 350 people. With the closest enclosed rinks being in Kalamazoo and South Bend, many hockey enthusiasts are forced to travel long distances when the Howard Ice Arena isn’t operational.

Grothous said a new ice rink could relieve some of the congestion that takes place at Howard Ice Arena. The St. Joseph arena normally opens around Thanksgiving and closes before St. Patrick’s Day.

“I think our rink is at capacity as what we can handle as far as hockey goes,” he said. “It could have a positive impact, but it could pull some of our hockey folks away. Maybe there will be more opportunities for open skate for the public. There’s a lot of unknown at this point. The amount of hockey tournaments could be economically beneficial, too.”

The decision to grant a special use permit falls entirely on the Lincoln Township Planning Commission.

Because it’s not a rezoning issue or include a change to the township’s ordinances, the decision does not have to go to the Board of Trustees. However, the special use permit is not the only layer of protection for residents.

If a special use permit is approved by planners, the developer is also required to submit a detailed site plan for approval. No construction starts until it’s approved.

Glowacki said there have been others before him who have thought about building an enclosed ice rink through private funding. There are several pitfalls to running one, which is why Glowacki said he has spent so much time preparing for such an endeavor.

“An ice rink is a difficult business. It’s not just a turnkey business where you can hand over the reins,” Glowacki said. “You need to have the right person in charge; someone willing to spend a lot of time at the ice rink to put out a decent product and decent program for kids.”

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 May 7, 2016)

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SJ schools series bond gets approval from voters

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Voters gave St. Joseph Public Schools the funding it wanted through the next decade at Tuesday’s polls.

A series bond that will raise more than $8 million over 12 years for St. Joseph schools passed with 54.9 percent in favor at Tuesday’s polls. Money raised from the sale of bonds will be used to support upgrades in technology, security, transportation and building improvements across the district.

Not accounting for absentee ballots among the precincts, the city of St. Joseph had the highest approval rate at 62 percent.

The district will issue $2.45 million in 2016, $3.05 million in 2020 and $2.89 million in 2024. The total amount raised by the bond sale over the 12 years would not exceed $8.4 million.

Superintendent Ann Cardon said in a prepared statement the school’s administration is thrilled with the community’s support.

“As we were talking about the proposal with families and community members, we received a lot of positive feedback,” Cardon said in a news release. “Thanks to the passing of the bond proposal, our district can now move forward with our sustainability plan. On behalf of all of our students and staff members, thank you for your continued support of St. Joseph Public Schools.”

The ballot language for the series bond was adopted during a Board of Education meeting in February. The estimated millage that will be levied for the proposed bond in 2016 is 0.35 mills – or 35 cents for each $1,000 of taxable property value.

Board President Amy Porritt-Peirce said in a released statement that the bond’s approval will lead to great things for the district.

“The St. Joseph public school district is extremely grateful for such incredible support and looks forward to providing students a continued excellence in education that is second to none,” Porritt-Peirce said.

Residents in the city of St. Joseph, Lincoln, Royalton and St. Joseph townships have favored education levies in the past.

The district passed a $38 million, 25-year bond issue in May 2010, which led to the renovation of several school buildings, improved security and an updated technology infrastructure.

Brandywine gets support

Brandywine Community Schools passed its millage proposal for the district’s sinking fund.

The sinking fund, which is a property tax dedicated to building and site improvements, had 433 votes Tuesday with 53 percent in approval of the levy.

The total amount levied is 1 mill – $1 on each $1,000 of taxable valuation – for 10 years starting in 2016 and ending in 2025.

The levy would create a sinking fund for the construction or repair of school buildings. The estimated revenue the school district will collect in 2016 is about $269,250.

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 May 4, 2016)

New body shop coming to Decatur

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

DECATUR — The village of Decatur is entering into an agreement with a private developer to build a body shop on a long-vacant piece of industrial property.

The developer, Nick Johnson of Sister Lakes, has been working with Decatur on the project since early 2015.

Village Manager James Krizan said they have been working for years to get something into the 20 acres at the south side of Decatur. The idea of the agreement was to take one of the parcels in the industrial park and split it.

Krizan said the project fell through for awhile, but resurfaced a few months ago when Johnson called to “get the ball rolling again.”

“This will be the first development there, which is very exciting,” Krizan said. “He contacted me and was interested in building his own business. We sold the parcel of land to him for about $1 and formed this agreement.”

The development agreement was approved at Monday night’s Village Council meeting. During the meeting, Village President Carl Wickett told Johnson they were exited for him to “bring his business to Decatur.”

The agreement requires that construction begins within 12 months of the execution of the agreement and that the project’s site plans are submitted within the next six months. In the agreement, the property can revert back to the village if one of the terms is not met.

If Johnson wanted to turn around and sell the parcel, Krizan said the sale would have to get approval from the board.

Krizan said the village would consider doing this again if it meant bringing more business to the industrial park.

“I would love for that to happen,” Krizan said. “We still have a lot of land and I’ve never done an agreement like this.”

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 May 4, 2016)

Developer proposes enclosed ice rink in Lincoln Township

AJ Glowacki, developer for a proposed enclosed ice rink, explains his vision for the project to audience members at a public hearing Monday at a Lincoln Township Planning Commission meeting. Planners postponed making a recommendation to the township board. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

AJ Glowacki, developer for a proposed enclosed ice rink, explains his vision for the project to audience members during a public hearing Monday at a Lincoln Township Planning Commission meeting. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — Location, location, location.

That was the main issue the Lincoln Township Planning Commission heard from residents Monday night during a public hearing concerning a proposed enclosed ice rink.

Planners postponed a decision until next month’s meeting after a lengthy public hearing in which nearly 30 people expressed statements of opposition and support. The commission tabled the decision in order to find out how the rink would affect traffic and the adjacent property values of homeowners.

The proposed rink, at 4137 Cleveland Ave. on the southeast corner of the Cleveland Avenue/Glenlord Road intersection, needs a special land use permit to operate. The site is in a low density residential use district.

Developer AJ Glowacki gave a presentation on what the rink would be used for and why he chose the 10-acre site near Stevensville.

“I live here. I want my tax dollars to go to my district,” he said. “It’s also a central location between St. Joseph and Lakeshore. I’m trying to do something for my community. Hockey is already its own community. I think a rink in this area can only make the community stronger.”

With more than 75 people in attendance, Glowacki explained the plan. In addition to hockey, the rink could be rented out for figure skating, broom ball, curling and birthday parties.

The facility would be between 35,000 and 40,000 square feet, Glowacki said. He did not provide an estimate of what the facility would cost.

“We are giving other towns thousands of dollars that could be spent here,” Glowacki said. “Hockey is the busiest during this area’s slowest time of the year. This could change that.”

The rink would have a connected parking lot with about 200 spaces. It would have room for about 350 people – on and off the ice. Nearly half the 10-acre property would be green space. Glowacki said the rink would have concessions and a pro shop that sells hockey equipment.

The hours of operation for the rink were heavily discussed. Glowacki said he expected most of the business to be between 6 a.m. and 1 a.m. Several residents felt 1 a.m. was too late for lighting.

Glowacki said he has already spoken with the Berrien County Road Commission, which told him the rink would have no issues with traffic in the area.

The area is now served by the Howard Ice Arena in St. Joseph, which is a covered, open air facility. Local ice enthusiasts for years have lobbied the city of St. Joseph to enclose that facility, but the city has balked due to the high cost of doing so.

Mike Desmet, who lives a few houses south of Glenlord Road on Cleveland Avenue, argued that planners should keep residential zones residential.

“Everyone here who is for this arena lives nowhere near this area,” Desmet said. “Now you’ve got to talk to people who live there.”

Brian Lee said he started skating in 1988 when he lived in Berrien Springs. Lee, now a St. Joseph resident, was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2002 NHL Draft and said it almost didn’t happen because his parents were forced to drive him across North America for tournaments.

“This did not exist when my parents introduced me to the sport,” Lee said. “As far as value goes, players and their families spend money in other town’s gas stations, hotels and restaurants.”

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 May 3, 2016)

M-139 eyesore to be demolished

Workers have begun clearing out the interior of the shuttered Purple Onion restaurant building along M-139 in Sodus Township in anticipation for its demolition. The site was almost temporarily annexed by Benton Township. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Workers have begun clearing out the interior of the shuttered Purple Onion restaurant building along M-139 in Sodus Township in anticipation for its demolition. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

SODUS — A vacant building along the M-139 corridor where Sodus Township meets the Benton Township business district is expected to be razed by mid-June.

The building at 2699 M-139, which last housed a restaurant known as The Purple Onion, is going through a lengthy process to be torn down.

Sodus Township Supervisor David Johnson said they were originally in negotiations more than a year ago with Benton Township to clean up the M-139 portion near the I-94 interchange.

Benton Township officials approached Johnson with a proposition to use a section 425 agreement. The agreement is considered a “temporary annexation.”

Under the agreement, Benton Township would have annexed the parcels of land for 10 years, with a potential 10-year extension. If the restaurant had been reconfigured to fall within Benton Township for at least the next 10 years, the parcels of land would have been bound to stricter ordinances, additional building codes and higher property taxes. Johnson said if the restaurant belonged to another jurisdiction, it could have been condemned.

“We started negotiating that because they (Benton Township officials) wanted to get that corridor cleaned up,” Johnson said. “It’s a long process, but they have more resources. No owner would want us to turn it over because they would be subject to more stringent ordinances.”

Benton Township Comptroller Kelli Nelson said the township received several complaints about the property. Nelson said the jurisdictional boundaries aren’t clear, and a lot of residents thought it was a part of the township.

“The agreement would have allowed us to use our resources to get the property cleaned up a bit,” Nelson said. “The townships are always looking for an opportunity to work together and clean up the corridor. It’s a highly visible area. It’s the first thing people see when they get off the highway.

“However, the legal agreement was deemed unnecessary.”

Sodus Township trustees tabled the agreement until township officials had a chance to speak with the owner.

After an in-depth inspection by building officials, Johnson met with the owner – Rajesh Bhardwaj, CEO of Cosmo Management Group Inc. – to explain what they found and how the agreement was a possible solution.

“He said he would be compliant and asked what the first step would be,” Johnson said. “I told him if he got it demolished by June 14, then we wouldn’t go through with the agreement. On April 6, they pulled a demo permit and have been clearing out the interior since then.”

Bhardwaj said his company is now in the planning stages of trying to secure a cafeteria or fast-food chain to replace the vacant restaurant.

Johnson said once the inside is gutted, the entire structure will be coming down.

“Sodus Township has never done (the agreement) before,” Johnson said. “This was a brand new, out-of-the-box idea. The building was past being rehabbed – it had to be demoed. The owner has been very cooperative. Everything we have wanted to be in compliant with he has done.”

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 May 3, 2016)

Sales up, prices fluctuate in first quarter of housing market

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — For the first quarter of 2016, the Southwest Michigan housing market was moving at a good pace in both the number of houses sold and the total dollar volume in sales.

The market had month-over-month increases in the number of houses sold even with the selling prices in constant fluctuation.

The number of houses sold increased 12 percent over the first quarter in 2015. Gary Walter, executive vice president of the Southwestern Michigan Association of Realtors Inc., said the numbers in March were similar to the same time period in 2015.

“There was just a two-house difference between the number of houses sold in March 2016 versus March 2015,” Walter said. “Contributing to the first quarter results, housing sales in January were up 30 percent and in February sales were up 14 percent over the same months in 2015.”

The total dollar volume for the first quarter was up 13 percent. The first quarter results were boosted by double-digit total dollar volume increases in January and February.

In March, the total dollar volume increased 3 percent.

With bouncing average selling prices, the average selling price at the end of the first quarter settled to within 1 percent of 2015.

In January, the average selling price was $200,335, which dropped to $156,965 in February before rebounding to $167,562 in March. The average selling price in March 2016 up 4 percent compared to last year.

The median selling prices in the first quarter also fluctuated. However, the median selling price at the end of the first quarter in 2016 was up 10 percent over the first quarter in 2015.

In January, the median selling price was $134,000 which dropped to $109,950 in February and rebounded to $125,900 in March. The year-to-date median selling price in 2016 was the highest for any year going back to 2006.

The number of bank-owned or foreclosed homes as a percentage of all transactions in the Southwest Michigan market increased to 20 percent in March.

Locally, the mortgage rate increased to 3.84 from 3.76 percent in February. Last year in March, the rate was at 3.91. Nationally, the Freddie Mac mortgage rate in March was 3.67 percent compared to 3.66 percent in February for a 30-year conventional mortgage.

Across the nation

According to the National Association of Realtors, existing-home sales bounced back in March and remained slightly up from a year ago.

Total existing-home sales jumped 5.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.3 million in March from a revised 5.07 million in February. Sales rose in all four major regions last month and are up from March 2015.

NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said home sales had a nice rebound in March following February’s “uncharacteristically large decline.”

“Closings came back in force last month as a greater number of buyers – mostly in the Northeast and Midwest – overcame depressed inventory levels and steady price growth to close on a home,” Yun said. “Buyer demand remains sturdy in most areas this spring and the mid-priced market is doing quite well.”

The median existing-home price for all housing types in March was up 5.7 percent from March 2015. March’s price increase marks the 49th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

“The choppiness in sales activity so far this year is directly related to the unevenness in the rate of new listings coming onto the market to replace what is, for the most part, being sold rather quickly,” Yun said.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Midwest jumped 9.8 percent to an annual rate of 1.23 million in March, which is 0.8 percent above March 2015. The median price in the Midwest was up 7.0 percent from a year ago.

The share of first-time buyers was 30 percent in March, unchanged both from February and a year ago.

“With rents steadily rising and average fixed rates well below 4 percent, qualified first-time buyers should be more active participants than what they are right now,” Yun said. “Unfortunately, the same underlying deterrents impacting their ability to buy haven’t subsided so far in 2016.

“Affordability and the low availability of starter homes is still a major barrier for (first-time buyers) in most markets.”

Nationally, the total housing inventory at the end of March increased 5.9 percent in existing homes available for sale, but is still 1.5 percent lower than a year ago. Unsold inventory is at a 4.5-month supply at the current sales pace, up from 4.4 months in February.

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 May 1, 2016)

Michael’s Auto Group coming soon to Benton Township

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Nader Hachem has been rehabbing a building on the west side of M-139, near the LeValley Chevrolet dealership in Benton Township.

Nearly a year after securing the location, Hachem said he intends to open Michael’s Auto Group at 2160 M-139 within the next month.

“I should have the mechanic side open by late May or early June,” he said. “I have my licenses ready. I have my mechanics ready. I have everything ready. Just have to finalize a few things.”

Hachem plans to open Michael’s Auto Group in different stages. Stage one will be the mechanic’s bay, stage two will be the sales portion of the business, with stage three reserved for towing and commercial. There’s no timeline on when the other stages will be ushered in, as Hachem said it depends on how business goes.

Hachem said there will be light mechanic work, brakes, suspension, alignment, oil changes plus other restorations. The sales portion would include used car sales, but Hachem said that would come later down the line.

The St. Joseph resident said he has been interested in automotive services since 2007. He came to Southwest Michigan in 2011 when he joined LECO Corp. as an electrical engineer.

Hachem said he discovered the site last May. The business was named after someone special to Hachem.

“My son is Michael. I decided to name the store after him,” he said. Hachem’s son is 21/2 years old. “He’s going to be working here for sure (laughs). People get confused and call me Michael all the time because they assume.”

Once the used car sales portion of his business is open, Hachem said there will be variations of cars to fit everyone’s budget.

“I understand I am in the middle of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. So, I’m going to have cars from low end to high end,” he said. “I won’t be financing in-house, but through banks. We are here to provide quality service based on trust and respect.”

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 May 1, 2016)