On stage at Econ Club: Cook explains process of getting speakers

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — The Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan has been around since 1943 and has had its fair share of iconic guests for its speaker series.

Speakers have ranged from former presidents to famous athletes.

Michael Cook, president of the Econ Club, spoke with Herald-Palladium staff writer Tony Wittkowski to address some of the challenges the club faces as well as recent changes.

How did the Econ Club speaker series start?

The Economic Club was founded by Louis Upton, one of the founders of Whirlpool Corp. He served as the club’s president for 10 years, and was followed by John Paul Taylor, who served as president for 30 years.

How long have you been affiliated with the club?

I’ve been president since 1983.

What kind of speakers does the Econ Club look for?

The word “economic” in our title is a bit misleading, as we don’t focus on economic topics. Rather we seek to bring to our area nationally and internationally known speakers who cover a wide range of topics. We don’t advocate for any particular ideology or cause. The audience has a chance to listen to each speaker’s views, and gets to ask questions of the famous speakers.

The club has had a lineup of famous people visit here. Tell me about them.

The club’s guests have included five United States presidents; a number of first ladies, beginning with Eleanor Roosevelt; four British prime ministers – Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa; and almost 200 other distinguished guests.

Whose been your favorite speaker so far and why?

There have been so many wonderful speakers. One of my all-time favorites was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. To rise to the top in what was then Britain’s male-dominated and very combative parliamentary system, I assume she had to be far more talented than the men. I found her to be most impressive.

Who decides on who to go after?

We survey our over 2,000 members for suggestions, and a committee of our board makes the final decisions.

What’s the process like in scheduling the speakers? What happens behind the scenes?

There’s lots of competition to get these speakers. The challenge is to persuade them to accept our invitation out of the hundreds of invitations they receive. Between our audience’s excellent reputation and our close relationships formed over the years with the speaker’s representatives, a famous speaker’s itinerary often ends up along the lines of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Benton Harbor, Washington D.C., and New York City.

Are there new challenges facing The Economic Club?

Yes, for the last eight or so years, the speaker fees have been skyrocketing. Our speaker fee budget in 2008 got us six top-tier speakers. That same amount today is only enough to get two top-tier speakers.

Speaker series across the nation can no longer exist on just membership fees. Our competitors get about half of their revenues from corporate and individual donations. So, we’ve just concluded a fundraising drive, and the community has been very generous.

I assume a smaller area trying to compete against large metro areas is difficult?

Unfortunately that’s true. Large communities have many more potential members and many more potential donors. So, it’s definitely a big challenge for our smaller area to keep bringing these notable people to our area.

I understand the club recently made some changes?

Yes, there are several changes. In addition to annual memberships, people can now purchase tickets to our individual events. People attending the club meetings can choose to have dinner, or have a speech-only ticket, which lowers the cost of attending a meeting.

We’re presenting the programs on large screens using high-definition cameras so those in the back have excellent views of the speakers. And we’re inviting lots of area students to not only attend each meeting, but to meet ahead of time as a group with the speaker. The speaker then addresses the students and takes their questions.

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 Nov. 14, 2016)

Whirlpool finishes final phase of Riverview Campus

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Work has been completed on the third phase at Whirlpool Corp.’s Riverview Campus. The south side is designed to maximize natural light. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — After a year and half of construction, the third and final phase of Whirlpool Corp.’s Riverview Campus is complete.

Riverview was designed as a way to consolidate 15 owned and leased properties into three campuses.

Wide windows on the south side of the building allows natural light while the north side has a brick-laden facade to match that of downtown Benton Harbor. The north side is the closest to the road at 600 W. Main St.

Jeff Noel, vice president of global communications and public affairs at Whirlpool, said Riverview Campus serves as a way to bridge together the Benton Harbor and St. Joseph communities.

“The outside is designed in a way to blend in with the Main Street motif,” Noel said during a tour of the facility with The Herald-Palladium. “The (river side) has glass and is more modern and open. We wanted to maintain that same fabric and feel going forward.”

Nov. 11 holds a special date with the home appliance maker.

On Nov. 11, 1911, the Benton Harbor-based company opened its doors for the first time. On Nov. 11, 2010, Whirlpool broke ground on the beginning of what would become the Riverview Campus. Friday (another Nov. 11) marked the completion of Phase 3.

Each building that makes up the Riverview Campus has three floors. Phase 3 construction began in the summer of 2015.

Lee Utke, senior director of Global Corporate Real Estate at Whirlpool, said there was a year and a half gap between the second and third phases of the campus because Whirlpool was also concentrating on the Benton Harbor Technology Center, which now houses nearly 300 workers.

Workers from the order processing center and the integrated supply chain will move to the final portion of Riverview Campus.

By the end of this weekend, the last portion of the employees from Whirlpool’s Hilltop Road location should be moved in. Utke said by Monday, about 1,350 people will call Riverview Campus home.

A big investment

Because the BH Tech Center was not planned in 2010 when campus construction was announced, what was already considered a large investment in Benton Harbor increased by another $33 million.

Whirlpool’s total investment in Benton Harbor between 2010 and 2016 for new and renovated facilities is estimated to be $155 million.

“There was only so much activity we could absorb at one time, so that’s why we extended the delivery date by about a year than what was originally projected for this phase,” Utke said.

In the new complex, all of the conference rooms are named after different geographical locations to reflect the company becoming more global. Just like every other building and each floor on all buildings, Phase 3 of the Riverview Campus has touch screens to reveal what conference rooms are occupied or available for a meeting.

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Work has been completed on the third phase at Whirlpool Corp.’s Riverview Campus. The south side is designed to maximize natural light. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

With more than 935 properties – owned and leased – consisting of 90 million square feet, Whirlpool’s final phase of the Riverview Campus is icing on the cake.

“It was originally supposed to be about 50,000 square feet, but now it’s 100,000 square feet,” Utke said, referring to the final phase. “That was based on the opportunity to bring more of the North American operation under one roof. We wanted to go for the look and feel of a more collaborative environment.”

Utke said one of the forces behind building such a campus is because they are recruiting the same people places like Silicon Valley are competing for.

The site was selected to attract the best workers and to find a central location to help the Twin Cities, Noel said. Since many of Whirlpool’s workers are millennials, the company looked for a more urban environment.

“These projects are helping us attract and retain great talent,” Noel said. “They want to be part of a resurgence in the community, just like they want to be part of an industry-leading company.”

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 Nov. 12, 2016)

The aftermath of an election: Trump’s winning night a surprise for Southwest Michigan

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Ron Ravitch sports a “Make America Great Again” hat during an election party for U.S. Rep. Fred Upton and Kim LaSata on Tuesday night at The Inn at Harbor Shores. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

Election Day proved a rough night for pollsters, who had been stating for weeks that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump had the narrow road to victory.

The opposite proved true as the night wore on, to the delight of Republicans and the despair of Democrats.

Among the other eager voters sitting at home waiting for the results was Barbara Carmichael.

The St. Joseph resident had voted for Trump earlier that day and told herself she would wait as long as it took to confirm her candidate was chosen.

“I was thrilled, but I felt like it was taking forever,” Carmichael said. “Maybe we will actually work on improving our country. I sent (my daughter) a text at 2:45 (a.m).”

Like many in the area, Carmichael is happy the election is over. She said she had grown tired of listening to all of the coverage.

“I didn’t feel there was enough focus on what each person was actually going to do,” Carmichael said. “I think it was really good of Mr. Trump in his speech to reach out to everybody because he truly loves this country and wants to see it get better.”

Not everyone had the warm sentiment toward the new president-elect.

Benton Harbor resident Lydia Kauffman said she stopped watching television as more and more states began to turn red. Kauffman admitted she didn’t like Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton either, but said she still wanted to vote for someone who didn’t “openly oppose Muslims and the LGBTQ community.”

“This has been a travesty,” Kauffman said Wednesday. “The fact that not only our country, but this state, voted for him shows we’ve taken a step backward.”

Trump pulled in support Tuesday with swing state after swing state voting GOP until the night came down to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. While Trump won Michigan by nearly 13,000 votes, he received about 9,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton in Berrien County.

In Van Buren and Cass counties, Trump had 3,000 and 7,000 more votes than Clinton, respectively.

Along with the Oval Office, Republicans now have control over the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. To say this would be a big win for the GOP, would be an understatement.

Re-elected U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, released a statement congratulating Trump on a “hard fought victory” in Michigan and across the country.

“I’ve said all along, I would be willing and able to work with whoever was elected our next president because lets face it: We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Upton said in the release. “It’s time to put the divisiveness of the past behind us, and come together as a nation. Building a better future for our children is something all Americans have in common and is a goal we all need to work toward.”

Feelings all around

John and Sue Kleinmanns were surprised, to say the least.

The couple sat in their Sawyer home Tuesday night in shock as the numbers continued to pour in across the country. Like Carmichael, they too stayed up late until the winner was announced.

Both voted for Clinton and said they are unsure where this leaves the country.

“It’s disappointing, sure,” Sue said. “I sincerely hope he can make this a better place for the working people. That’s all we can do, is hope.”

John Kleinmanns said he was glad the election was over and referred to the campaigns as a “disaster” and a “circus.”

“It was hard to watch,” he said. “There was nothing but name-calling with no room for talk of policy.”

The election left a lot of communities divided based on how partisan the issues have become. With a lot of people taking to social media in celebration or mourning, some have tried to begin the healing process.

Almost 24 hours after the polls closed, an event called “Community Healing Night” took place Wednesday at The Livery. It was there that attendees were encouraged to log off, hug, support, cry, or cheer the election results.

The event’s organizers said the informal social was a way to get people to share what they were feeling and what the election’s results meant for them and their community.

Brenton Griffin is from Kalamazoo, but spent his election night at the Inn at Harbor Shores to see Congressman Upton win his 16th term.

Griffin said he voted for Trump and his happy he won, but didn’t expect him to win the presidency.

“I’m a little shocked,” he said. “From all the polls and what was covered in the media, it seemed like Clinton had the easier path. It seems like everyone has been more focused o this election. I hope he makes America great again.”

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 Nov. 10, 2016)

Upton downs Clements again: Incumbent continues 6th District congressional rein

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Rep. Fred Upton thanks his supporters after winning re-election during an election night party Tuesday night at The Inn at Harbor Shores. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — There was no confetti or balloons that rained down from the ceiling, but Fred Upton celebrated the only way he knew how.

In the moments after the Republican incumbent discovered he would serve his 16th consecutive term as the 6th District congressional representative, Upton began pulling several people up on stage next to him in thanks.

Upton, R-St. Joseph, received an overwhelming amount of the vote Tuesday night to overtake Democratic challenger Paul Clements for a second time. It was unclear what percentage Clements received among the six counties that make up the 6th District, as districts were still reporting past midnight. However, there was a large enough margin for the Associated Press to call the race in favor of Upton by 10:30 p.m.

“When you have a victory of margin like this, you have to thank the voters,” Upton said to a round of applause. At one point in the night, Upton was leading by more than 30 points. “We’re going to listen, we’re going to react, and we’re going to help people in very of our district to improve their quality of life.”

With hundreds of people packing a conference room on the second floor of the Inn at Harbor Shores, Upton and his wife, Amey, made their way onto the room’s platform as a live band played the theme song of “Ghostbusters.” The 63-year-old gave thanks for begin given another two-year term in Congress.

Upton, who has become known for his bipartisan efforts, told his constituents that gathered at his general election party that he will continue to work with both parties.

He shared the room with other candidates in contention, which included Kim LaSata and Dave Pagel. After Upton brought his support staff on stage for recognition – which seemed like half the room – the congressman addressed the presidential race that continued to unfold.

“This really does set the stage for what we need to do,” Upton said moments after recognizing the Chicago Cubs’ World Series performance. “We will have a new president, but our country is in dire need of some leadership. There’s a reason 70 percent of Americans feel we’re on the wrong track.”

The St. Joseph native chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but is slated to lose that chairmanship even if the GOP retains its House majority. Projections indicated the GOP will hold the House.

The congressman joined the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 1991. He competed against three others for chairman six years ago and was unopposed as chair his last two terms. When Upton was named chair, he became the first major committee chairman to come from Southwest Michigan.

Further east in Kalamazoo, Clements gave his congratulations to Upton.

Clements, a Western Michigan University professor who teaches political science and national economic development, previously ran against Upton in 2014. Clements previously collected 40 percent of the vote to Upton’s 56 two years ago.

The last place he stopped was at WMU, where he spoke to students.

“I’m really grateful to all the volunteers and am disappointed in the results,” Clements said. “I visited all six counties today and it felt great to shake a lot of hands. I love my job as a professor and am delighted to continue teaching and doing research. But I’ve got to congratulate Congressman Upton. He won fair and square.”

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 Nov. 9, 2016)

Bond funding amplifies SJ school district’s technology usage

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — According to the St. Joseph school district’s technology director, the series bond that voters OK’d earlier this year has already started doing its job.

Bryan Parsons gave board members his annual technology plan Monday at E.P. Clarke Elementary during a SJPS board meeting, including a look at how technology has benefited students.

Using the tech bond, Parsons told trustees the district has purchased 40 new iMacs, 30 new iPads, 220 new Chromebooks and additional access controls to all elementary schools.

“Assess to technology has become a big thing at our district. Everyone has access to a device,” Parsons said. “In the classroom, the programs we use have kept the focus on the instruction, and not the device.”

With the One-to-One program, Parsons said there are now more devices at Upton Middle School than there are students. The program has helped the BYOD initiative – known as Bring Your Own Device – take off at the high school.

On the wireless network at the high school, Parsons told board members more than 2,000 devices are in use daily.

“It’s a busy network, but we have a great infrastructure,” Parsons said. “We’re very lucky to have it.”

He said the plan moving forward is to focus on website compliance and find more resources to expand teacher training.

Superintendent Ann Cardon said it’s been amazing to see how students have reacted to using technology in the classroom.

“We pride ourselves on our use of technology,” Cardon said. “We have spent a lot of money on technology, but it’s something used every day in every classroom.”

Other agenda items

EP Clarke Elementary Principal Michelle Allen gave a presentation on what her school has been doing to close the gap with other schools.

The board also recognized the boys tennis and girls gold team for their accomplishments this fall.

Also, the Nov. 14 school board meeting was cancelled. The next expected meeting is Dec. 5.

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 Nov. 8, 2016)

The ones that got away in economic development

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — Many wonder how things might be different had they gone to another school or taken that other job.

The same goes for the people who work at economic development organizations.

Southwest Michigan has picked up in tourism in recent years and is considered to be one of the up-and-coming areas to relocate or start a business.

Greg Vaughn, chief operating officer and vice president of business development at Cornerstone Alliance, has been bringing businesses to the region for about 20 years and knows how difficult the process can be.

There was at least one specific occasion that stood out to everyone at Cornerstone. When Vaughn and his colleagues were attempting to convince an out-of-state company to move to the area, something happened that was out of their control.

Vaughn recalled how Southwest Michigan was one of a few communities in contention for the out-of-state business. (Because Cornerstone works with a lot of businesses in confidentiality, the names of potential businesses were left out of this Herald-Palladium article.)

“We got some good feedback from them,” Vaughn said. “They flew in from South Bend. They indicated they were interested.”

Somehow, the company’s representatives changed their mind when Cornerstone followed up on the visit a few days later.

On their way out of town, the company’s representatives stopped at a restaurant for food. One started asking a waitress about the community, and unfortunately for Cornerstone, the waitress was negative about it.

“We found out the people who represented the company did not like the vibe they got from the waitress they talked to,” Vaughn said. “Our community was eliminated from contention.”

However, not all of the community-related occurrences ended badly when Cornerstone was trying to court a potential company.

Vaughn said one time a distribution company was looking to open another location and some of its officials stopped in Southwest Michigan.

“It was a good opportunity and they left interested,” Vaughn said. “They stopped at a local establishment and the CEO of the company locked their keys in the car. They called us, and we called the Benton Harbor Police Department, which sent an officer out to unlock the car.”

Afterward, the CEO told the officer he appreciated the help and the officer replied it was no problem, considering they had shown interest in the community.

“It wasn’t long after that they made the move to set up here,” Vaughn said. “That CEO said it was an important factor. It helped him decide that the satellite operation was perfect and they set up in the St. Joseph area. We don’t like to give names, even though they’re here.”

Enticing businesses

On the initial visit, Vaughn said they seldom find out what other communities are in contention. They try to do some research, but normally don’t know what company they’re pitching to until the second or third visit.

“Sometimes they’ll share with us, but the first visit is secretive,” Vaughn said. “They don’t share much with us, but we share a lot with them.”

With all the stories of success and failure, Vaughn said there tends to be a low percentage of businesses that sign on with Southwest Michigan.

It’s a big investment to move a company or open up a secondary location. To do this, companies use site selectors and consultants to find the best locations.

Despite these odds, it’s not unusual for Cornerstone Alliance to work on a lead for two years. Vaughn said companies can come in for a day and things gets quiet for a while.

“We’ve worked on projects for a couple of years and they decide to not expand at all,” Vaughn said. “When we compete for these companies, we go against Texas, Ohio and North Carolina. There’s even a lot of competition within the state.”

A win’s a win

Vaughn also recalled another time Cornerstone Alliance worked with a company that was looking at Benton Township as a potential home for a production facility.

The folks at Cornerstone spent many hours with them to a point that the company wanted to come to a location.

The site you that was presented was great, but the company’s officials decided to go bigger. Their project outgrew the available space, but Vaughn said Cornerstone was unable to find a bigger location.

“That ended things here, but we found a place for them in Kalamazoo and referred them to our partners there,” Vaughn said. “It was a loss for Berrien County, but a win for the state of Michigan.”

A lot of companies look for 200,000-square-foot buildings, which is hard to find in Berrien, Van Buren and Cass County. This has forced Cornerstone to certifying sites for development.

This included the 255 acres along Yore Avenue in Benton Township that was certified as a shovel-ready site – the first property with this designation in Berrien County.

Even now, Vaughn said Cornerstone has been working with a company out west for several months.

“We’ve been courting them for quite some time,” he said. “We’ve done everything they asked us to do, and its come down to suppliers. We’ve looked for those suppliers and found some sources. While the trucking costs are too high, we haven’t lost that chance. It can be a challenge.”

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 Nov. 7, 2016)

New Marriott hotel opens in Benton Township

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The Springhill Suites by Marriott opened Friday along Cinema Way in Benton Township. The four-story hotel is across from the Hilton Garden Inn. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — The first of two anticipated Benton Township hotels opened toward the end of last week.

The Springhill Suites by Marriott opened Friday afternoon. It fielded more than 20 reservations over its first weekend.

“It was huge opening for us since we’re new,” said General Manager Clint Milewski. “Our first guest comment card was five stars. It’s funny because we had a representative from Marriott that came to train us. She was surprised because she’s never opened up a property that got a comment card on the first day.”

Located at 1255 Cinema Way, the hotel is just off the I-94 Scottsdale exit. In fact, the hotel already has a billboard along the highway.

The 94-room hotel has four stories as a result of a height variance that was approved by the township’s Planning Commission and Board of Trustees.

The majority of the rooms are king suites, with about two dozen queen room suites.

The range in prices will depend on the time of year. Milewski said the current off-season price is usually $149.99 per night. When summer picks up, Milewski said rooms should run $249 to $259 a night.

Milewski said they’ve hired about 22 employees.

With 98 parking spaces, the Marriott hotel has just over its count for the total number of rooms. The parking lot will not be shared with the Staybridge Suites hotel next to it. The Staybridge, being built by the same developer as the Marriott, also will have a parking lot with two entryways from Cinema Way.

“When I heard they were opening, I was very happy,” said Milewski, who previously managed the Best Western Hotel in Benton Township. “I think these new hotels are generating a lot of employment opportunities in the area, and it’s also showing how much Benton Harbor and St. Joseph is growing as a place of business.”

Milewski said the Marriott hotel has and will continue to work with Whirlpool Corp. and Cook Nuclear Plant. He said the hotel developer has shown interest in the township because of its proximity to such businesses and events like the Senior PGA Championship that is hosted locally every two years.

Growing up in South Bend, Milewski said he was still surprised to learn how popular the area has become for destination weddings.

“Since I’ve been out here working, I never knew how much tourism came through here,” Milewski said. “We deal with a lot of weddings and people come from around the state for tours at breweries and wineries.”

What’s inside?

With more of a modern look, there are “television boards” along the walls in the lobby.

All of the rooms are bigger than the standard size hotel room.

Added Milewski: “We have a lot of internet ports and electrical outlets made for the working person on the go. … We’ve made it so you can sit anywhere and have access to do your work – but in comfort.”

There is also a large fitness room, as well as a smaller pool and a business center with faxing, copying capabilities and two computer stations. Travelers can also sit on a patio with an outdoor fire pit.

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 Nov. 8, 2016)