Signature Automotive plans big expansion

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Signature Automotive Group is prepping for an expansion this spring at its Napier Avenue location.

The Benton Township dealership, which sells Toyota, Hyundai and Mitsubishi brands, is using two acres of land to create a Used Car Super Center that will be anchored in a Mitsubishi showroom.

Bill Crowder, general manager for Signature Automotive, said they have already begun site prep work which will continue through winter. He said the expansion is about a $200,000 investment.

“We’ve owned the two acres in property for a more than a decade, but decided to put it to good use,” Crowder said. “We’ll use the Mitsubishi portion, which is our westernmost point, as a showroom for the Used Car Super Center. We’ll also be expanding our inventory by purchasing another half a million dollars in used cars.”

Workers are taking out trees, digging out top soil, putting in the sewer drains and laying a gravel base.

While the prep work is expected to be done by the end of the year, Crowder said they are pushing for the Used Car Super Center to be running by April 1. However, the time frame depends on the winter weather.

He said the goal of the expansion is to create the largest used car selection in Berrien County.

“The used car market is strong since there’s obviously a need with the number of people we get looking,” Crowder said. “We have a great market between Benton Harbor, St. Joseph and the surrounding communities. We would like to tap into that.”

Signature Automotive already sells cars, but Crowder said the expansion would put the car dealership “over the top.”

Site plans for the expansion have been in the works for the past six months. However, Crowder said he’s considered the build-out for well over a year.

In addition to creating four new jobs for the Used Car Super Center, Signature Automotive will also be expanding all brands. This includes stocking more Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge trucks and luxury brand products for vehicles like Lexus.

Building Inspector Tom Baldwin said the township reviewed the expansion with Crowder and directed him to the right departments.

“What they’ve done over there the past 12 or 15 years as they’ve expanded the dealership and their product line is amazing,” Baldwin said Monday. “It’s certainly a boon for the township.”

This isn’t the first time Signature Automotive has added onto its Benton Township location.

According to Herald-Palladium archives, Signature Automotive set up shop on the corner of Napier Avenue and Union Street in 1989, where a showroom building for Mitsubishi and Hyundai was added in 2004. Then came a $2 million investment for a 13,500-square-foot addition in 2007, in which the dealer’s existing building was also renovated.

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. 6, 2016)

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Unemployment increases as residents seek jobs

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

There were two competing trends in the job market for October.

According to the state’s Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, typical seasonal employment changes were recorded as the education sector returned to full staffing and jobs continued to decline in leisure and hospitality services.

However, more individuals broke away from the trend over the past several years by entering the labor market in October in search of jobs.

Because of this, unemployment rates rose moderately in all Southwest Michigan labor markets by an average of four-tenths of a percentage point.

All four Southwest Michigan counties recorded jobless rates below the statewide-unadjusted unemployment rate of 4.6 percent in October.

Allegan County’s unemployment rate – the lowest in the region – rose from 2.9 percent to a 3.2 percent. Berrien County increased its jobless rate from 4 percent to 4.3 percent, and Cass County rose from 3.9 percent in September to 4.3 percent in October.

Van Buren County’s jobless rate rose from 4 percent to 4.4 percent – making it the highest unemployed county in the Southwest Michigan region.

Michigan finished with a 4.6 percent unemployment rate in October (a 0.2 percent increase), while the U.S. produced a 4.7 percent jobless rate (a 0.1 percent decrease overall).

A look at Berrien jobs

Berrien County saw a decrease of 600 non-farm payroll jobs in October, mostly in leisure and hospitality and manufacturing.

The area gained only 100 jobs in private education and health services. Jobs in all other sectors remained flat. Total non-farm payroll employment in October was about 63,200.

Since October of last year, leisure and hospitality added 400 positions and a 200 job improvement was recorded in trade, transportation, warehousing, and utilities, and in leisure and hospitality.

However, employment in professional and business services declined over the year. Total non-farm payroll employment in Berrien County was 200 above October 2015 levels. The current October payroll jobs were still 5.9 percent below the pre-recessionary 2007 level.

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. 4, 2016)

Living in uncharted territory: Realtors, builders weigh in on depleted housing inventory

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Construction continues on houses in the Fox Crossing subdivision in St. Joseph on Nov. 15. Southwest Michigan is part of the nation trend of declining housing inventory. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

The housing market has rebounded enough that it’s matched pre-recession levels that were last seen in 2006.

Sales are up and interest rates have been favorable. Everything is going well for real estate agents and homeowners with one exception: There are not many houses left to buy.

The housing inventory has continued to fall through a variety of reasons in Southwest Michigan and the rest of the country. Some say not enough houses are being built to keep up with demand. Others say people are unwilling to move and sell their homes like before.

Phil Amodeo is among the latter.

Amodeo, who recently became the association executive for the Southwestern Michigan Association of Realtors Inc., said the housing market is in uncharted territory.

“This phenomenon is really unprecedented,” he said. “When there is a recession, markets slow down and people pull back. But when it speeds up, things go back to normal. After this recession, that just didn’t happen.”

Several communities have been experiencing an inventory shortage for several years. Basically, there simply aren’t enough active listings within the in-demand neighborhoods that homebuyers covet.

At the end of October in Southwest Michigan, there were 2,069 houses on the market compared to 2,356 in October of 2015. At this number, the inventory had a 7.1-month supply of homes for buyers.

This was a decline from 7.5-months supply in September and 8.6-months supply in October of last year. Those recorded houses are in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties.

To determine the months supply of inventory for a given area, the number of active listings on the market is divided by the number of homes sold per month on average during the previous 12 months.

A “healthy” market usually has between 5 and 6 months supply of inventory. However, that normally is aligned with larger metropolitan cities like Santa Monica, Calif. In the Midwest, a 7.1-month supply is low.

Amodeo said there is no single reason why there’s a low number of available houses for sale. But when homeowners learned there was a tight inventory, Amodeo said people became more hesitant when choosing to move.

“People were saying we don’t think we’re going to find a house, so we’re not going to put ours up for sale,” he said. “A year or two later it’s still like that. If people would do the normal thing it would go back to normal.”

By the numbers

With a low inventory, it’s not surprising that selling a house isn’t hard in 2016.

The average time a home stays on the market before it sells has dropped to 104 days in October, down from 132 days in October of 2015. That’s a 21 percent decrease.

Year to date, the time on market has dropped from 134 days to 119, an 11 percent decline. This means homes are selling at a faster pace than in recent years.

Amodeo is moving from Texas and noted how the market there fully rebounded three years go. Unlike down south, Amodeo said states in the Midwest – like Michigan and Indiana – are the first ones to go into a recession and the last ones out.

“Homes are selling quickly there, but there is only a month- or two-month supply there,” Amodeo said. “I can’t explain it. I’ve studied economics and real estate for my entire career. There are patterns and trends, and it seems like you throw that out the window.”

Lawrence Yun oversees the production of existing home sales statistics as the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors. Yun can predict the direction a mortgage rate will trend, but even he doesn’t know when the inventory shortage will let up.

Nationally, the total housing inventory at the end of October declined 0.5 percent to 2.02 million existing homes available for sale, and is now 4.3 percent lower than a year ago.

What’s more frightening for the country’s housing inventory, is that figure has fallen year-over-year for 17 straight months. Unsold inventory is at a 4.3-month supply at the current sales pace nationally.

“The ramp-up in housing (construction) in October is a hopeful sign that overall supply can steadily increase enough to provide more choices for buyers and also moderate price growth,” Yun said. “A prolonged continuation of the robust single-family starts pace seen last month would go a long way in giving homeowners much-needed assurance that they can list their home for sale and find a new home to buy within a reasonable timeframe.”

Home improvement

David Kiel owns Kiel Construction in Benton Harbor and focuses on remodeling existing homes. But as president of the Homebuilders Association of Southwest Michigan, Kiel said the area housing is affected by where people work.

“With Whirlpool (Corp.) and how it is, a lot of people move into the area,” he said. “It also depends on how early people like to retire in the area. Because of how close we are to the lake, it makes it harder to find an available spot.”

Kiel said builders aren’t doing spec homes as much as they used to because securing financing for such projects has become harder and places a larger risk on builders.

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A for sale sign is pictured at a home along Langley Avenue in St. Joseph. The average time a home is on the market before it sells is 104 days as of October of this year, down from 132 days a year ago. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Spec houses is short for speculative houses, which are homes built for sale with no particular buyer in mind.

“There’s a lot more paperwork involved,” Kiel said. “But that’s just because the banks are doing more homework to ensure there’s not another housing crisis.”

Kiel said the biggest problem in the soon-to-be future will be a lack of skilled workers. Along with a depleted inventory will be less professionals who have the capability to build a home.

Second homes

Joshua Schmidke is the owner of Schmidke Construction in Baroda. He said affordability has a big impact on the housing inventory problem as it became prevalent about four years.

Houses that cost $300,000 or below are selling before they are even completed, Schmidke said. Anything higher tends to sit longer, which sometimes makes up a larger percentage of the available housing in regions.

Schmidke said another reason why it’s so hard to find an available home in Southwest Michigan – especially Berrien County – is Chicagoans and the second home market.

As chairman of the Parade of Homes Committee, Schmidke said cities like St. Joseph are big sites for second home owners who wish to spend summer in a nice community. With the addition of Harbor Shores and the emergence of the Senior PGA, vacation homes are becoming more popular.

“It’s probably 80 to 90 percent of our business,” Schmidke said. “We’re focused on making second homes for a lot of Chicago clients. At the same time, we don’t build the $300,000 houses that other people do locally.”

Amodeo should know how hard it is to find a new home locally.

He and his family are originally from northwest Indiana, but he’s just now moving from Texas.

Because he can’t find a more permanent home since taking the job of association executive, Amodeo leased a small house that’s split into a few units in St. Joseph that normally serves as a summer rental.

“We have our house on the market and I’ve been keeping my eye out for something, but there’s not a lot out there,” Amodeo said. “Our requirements aren’t really strict and yet in the St. Joe and Stevensville area, there’s not more than four or five houses in our criteria – unless you go into a higher price range.”

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. 27, 2016)

Shopping small: Downtown SJ preps for Small Business Saturday

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Downtown St. Joseph businesses were bustling with preparation and sales Friday.

Many owners got a jumpstart on Small Business Saturday by offering deals that began Friday, while shoppers gradually moved from big box stores to smaller, locally owned ones.

Erik and Demrhy Youngquist offered deals not only because of Small Business Saturday or Black Friday, but also because it was their one-year anniversary since buying Purely Michigan at 406 State St.

“We’re definitely thankful for being here,” Erik Youngquist said. “It’s been great running the business for a year, so we want to give back during the holidays.”

On Saturday, Purely Michigan will also host Greenbush Brewing Co., which will be bringing a sample of their beers.

As a way to promote one of their giveaways, the Youngquists hung a larger-than-life Stormy Kromer hat from the ceiling at the front of their store. Among their other promotional ideas for Small Business Saturday and the Christmas season was a drawing for a gift basket. They then decided to give away a free Stormy Kromer hat once a week through December 24.

At FuzzyButz Pet Bakery, owner Mary Schaut said they were offering 15 percent off everything in the store from Friday and Saturday.

They’ve done sales like these for several years to take advantage of the influx of shoppers.

“We get busy Friday, but it’s later in the day after they’ve already hit the big box stores,” Schaut said. “They come downtown and want to see more personable items you can’t find elsewhere.”

Like other downtown stores, FuzzyButz is extending its hours for Small Business Saturday. Schaut said it’ll be open until 8 p.m. this weekend, instead of the normal 6 p.m closing time.

“There’s a lot of foot traffic, a lot of people coming down for dinner and dessert from Chocolate Cafe,” Schaut said. “We’ll be here.”

Andy Vescolani took over The Toy Company last year around November. He’s gone another route from the other businesses.

From a promotional standpoint, The Toy Company hasn’t done anything too differently. But Vescolani said they have upped their game for gift wrapping and product recommendations.

“Small Business Saturday in particular was wonderful (last year),” Vescolani said. “With the competition from online sales to big box stores, it’s hard to survive without the support of the community.

“This time of year is great, because we’re seeing those smiling faces,” he said. “People are a lot more receptive this time of year to recommendations. We’ve been going to international toy shows and conferences trying to find the best toys.”

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. 26, 2016)

Pri Mar seeking approval to construct gas station

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Pri Mar Petroleum is again looking to build a gas station/convenience store along M-63 in Benton Township.

The St. Joseph business submitted a request for the township to rezone land along the corner of M-63 and Enterprise Way. Trustees will make a decision at its next board meeting Dec. 6.

Treasurer Debbie Boothby said the same company had come to the board for a special use permit for a gas station in 2007. After the Planning Commission recommended it be denied, Boothby said the company withdrew its request before the board could vote on it 10 years ago.

When the rezoning proposal was submitted for approval this year, the Benton Township Planning Commission recommended the township’s board reject the plan during an October meeting. Then the Berrien County Planning Commission took a look at the proposal in November and agreed with the Planning Commission.

The land, owned by Pri-Mar, is zoned D-2 professional as the company is trying to rezone it to D-1 retail commercial, which Boothby said has more options for developments.

Craig Marzke, chief operating officer of Pri Mar, said when they first applied for a special use permit in 2007, the land was zoned residential.

The convenience store would be about 6,000 square feet, with 3,500 of it being showroom space. Marzke said the store would carry an expanded grocery selection and have a modern look to it with tall glass walls and a high-tech security system.

The station would offer gas and diesel and be open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Marzke said it would create about a dozen jobs.

The exterior lighting would be LED directional lighting, which doesn’t cast out into the distance.

“They’re used at new stores,” Marzke said. “The lighting doesn’t look like a football field when you pull into a parking lot.”

Marzke said 2.5 acres would be part of construction with the remaining property to be used for something “that would benefit the surrounding neighborhood.”

“The store’s laid out in a manner that matches up with the (next-door) fire station. We want to fit it into the neighborhoods,” Marzke said. “The landscaping plan surpasses twice the amount the ordinance calls for. We want it to look nice.”

This wouldn’t be Pri Mar’s first gas station. Marzke said they have 13 other stations, which includes Benton Harbor, Berrien Springs, Stevensville and St. Joseph.

The proposal faces resistance from some nearby residents. The Planning Commission’s October meeting minutes indicate residents were vocal during the public hearing portion.

Traffic was a concern since the station would be just south of where M-63’s four lanes become two.

Boothby said the majority of opposition to the proposed gas station is coming from Woodridge Place and Rocky Gap residents.

Marzke said he understands their concerns, but felt Pri Mar has an opportunity to provide a service that is not currently available in the area.

“I know we can tastefully do this project that would be a benefit to the neighborhood and an asset to the entire community,” Marzke said.

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. 26, 2016)

Patience, planning key to Black Friday shoppers

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Fernando Hernandez has spent the last five years perfecting his craft of getting a jump on Black Friday.

The St. Joseph resident pulled up to the locked doors of Best Buy around 11:30 a.m. and saw no one else.

Hernandez was waiting outside in the cold for a few hours because of a special deal on a flat-screen TV, a Canon camera and a Boost Mobile cell phone. He had not had a Thanksgiving meal yet. However, once he was done shopping he planned on driving another 2.5 hours north to Pentwater to spend time with family.

He secured the 49-inch television for $200 by default as he was first in line. Hernandez has waited outside the Benton Township Best Buy for the last five years, where he’s slowly climbed up a few spots in line. But this year was the first time he was at the very front.

Hernandez came prepared to brave the approaching winter weather. Dressed in a cap, gloves, insulated shoes and overalls, Hernandez also ran through his process on picking out the best deals.

“I do a lot of research online to see if it’s actually a deal because a lot of times a store will boost the price up and tell you it’s a deal,” Hernandez said. “There’s a website that leaks the ads for nearly every main store.”

The savvy shopper scopes out all the big box stores in advance, which includes Wal-Mart, Sears and JC Penny.

The first time he stood outside a store for Black Friday sales was for a Samsung TV. He showed up at midnight and waited until 5 a.m. But that was when Black Friday was more serious.

“I learned to dress right because I got cold the first time,” Hernandez said. “I also learned to be among the first 15 in line. A few years ago I waited in line and was too far back. Everybody got crazy. When they were handing out tickets, a guy was pulling it away from the Best Buy worker.”

After that, Hernandez said the store put in temporary gates to make a single file line leading to the doors.

Henrique Gomes is originally from Brazil, but he’s enrolled at Andrews University.

The Berrien Springs resident got to Best Buy around noon and was also waiting in line for the $200 TV. Gomes said he was there to buy a 49-inch TV for his church.

The first time Gomes took part in bargain shopping around Thanksgiving was in 2001 when he still lived in Virginia.

“It was a much simpler process. You would go get a newspaper and circle the deals while looking with your family. There was not a lot of places you could go to check prices,” Gomes said. “It was also more serious back then. People would go at 5 a.m. on Friday, but now it’s Thursday afternoon which doesn’t feel as intense.”

Gomes said he comes well dressed because he learned the hard way.

In addition to bringing a hot drink, Gomes said the idea is to keep things moving and fun.

“Have some patience. Don’t just sit down, get to know people,” he said. “You come across some nice people waiting in line. You start taking and then time flies by. If you keep thinking about it, it will take a long time for the doors (to open).”

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. 25, 2016)

Stuffing it to calories: Turkey Trot returns for Twin City runners

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Runners head into the first turn Thursday at the start of the 10K run during the second annual Twin Cities Turkey Trot in downtown Benton Harbor. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Thanksgiving is a tradition that normally involves family and eating.

A few hundred that found themselves in Benton Harbor on Thursday morning threw in a twist to that tradition. Nearly 400 people from across the country and state ran and walked in the second annual Twin Cities Turkey Trot, which began just outside of Dwight P. Mitchell City Center Park.

Among the few who withstood the sobering temperatures were two who were more accustomed to the south.

Alia Adams and Andy Wildman are from Tennessee, but spent the holiday in South Haven to visit with family from Grand Rapids.

The two recently got engaged and chose to celebrate with a run. Wildman and his father actually took on the first Turkey Trot held in Benton Harbor last year. Adams said this was only her second 5K.

“We’re not from Michigan originally,” Wildman said. “I’ve never lived anywhere this cold. I like running and felt this was a good way to get ready for all the calories we’re going to eat later.”

Marianne Groth, president of the SWMI RACERS, organized the 5K and 10K races around several Benton Harbor parks and monuments.

For the second time around, Groth said they were able to get the city to close the route to traffic. The event’s organizers released a survey after last year’s race and found the traffic to be a recurring concern.

This involved changing some of the routes so the city wouldn’t have to close as many streets.

“There’s more room for the runners to go,” Groth said. “On the 10K, we changed it to remove any trail running.”

With more participating in the run this year, Groth said there were more zip codes represented as families from all over the country were in town for Thanksgiving.

Runners came from as far as Alabama and Virginia. Registration was inside the Benton Harbor Public Library.

A few family members from North Carolina came up for the weekend and coordinated with others to wear turkey hats. Some had feathers, while others had drumsticks atop their heads.

Supporting the parks

Turkey Trots have picked up in popularity over the years as a way to exercise together on a day that is predominantly known for eating. Some have taken it a step further by dressing in goofy outfits and costumes for the race.

“The weather is different for people traveling. It can be a big difference,” Groth said. “We had a race like this in Niles, but this one gives people in the St. Joe-Benton Harbor area an opportunity for a closer race.”

Benton Harbor resident Jen Van Beek wore a turkey hat Thursday alongside her family, which included younger participants in strollers.

“I like supporting the parks district, so when the race moved here it was perfect,” Van Beek said.

Groth directs races for a lot of events, which is where she came up with the idea for a Turkey Trot last year.

The race began when the previous president of the Benton Harbor Parks and Recreation Conservancy was looking for a charitable event that would not only raise money, but introduce people to the parks in the area.

Funding raised from the race will go to programming and equipment for the parks as AEP was the title sponsor once more for the Turkey Trot.

“I’m really hoping we get to 500 participants next year,” Groth said. “We got started a little later this year with the change in leadership at the parks conservancy. So, hopefully next year there will be an even bigger outreach.”

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. 25, 2016)