Career Night returns to St. Joe: Interact Club draws student, business professionals

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Belle Svee reacts to a story Thursday that nurse practitioner Kim Felton tells about her first incident in the emergency room. The discussion was during Career Night at St. Joseph High School. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Siobhan Miller doesn’t know what she wants to do when she graduates high school, but she figured she’d have a clearer picture after Thursday night.

The St. Joseph sophomore was among the dozens of students who sat at tables in the St. Joseph High School’s Student Center and spoke with mentors Thursday during the second annual Career Night.

The two-hour event allowed students to talk to several professionals with differing backgrounds to get a sense of what there is to offer after high school and college.

Among Miller’s first stops was at a veterinarian’s table, where she learned the field was very broad.

“I didn’t know there was going to be this many people,” she said between table visits. “At the vet’s table, I learned I can just study animals, and I didn’t have to do any surgery or anything.”

The event was started by St. Joseph High School’s Interact Club and doubled in attendance, both with students and mentors, from the year before.

Club President Taylor Huie, a St. Joseph senior, said more planning went into this year’s Career Night.

“The event turned out really well last year. However, it was very last-minute, and we didn’t get the word out as well as we did this year,” Huie said. “I’m in a group chat with all the other (Interact Club) presidents and told them about the event to have them reach out to their schools.”

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One of the newer tables at this year’s Career Night was Nuclear Engineering and Fashion. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Students from Bridgman, Lakeshore, Lake Michigan Catholic, St. Joseph high schools and the surrounding middle schools were invited to the event.

Larkin Johnson, the club’s mentoring director, was in charge of coordinating the more than 40 business professionals on hand Thursday.

Nuclear engineering, fashion merchandising and orthopedic surgery were among the new tables offered at Career Night.

“Obviously we can’t have people from every field here tonight, but I like the variety we were able to get,” Johnson said.

Among the mentors who volunteered to speak with curious students was Victoria Spitzke.

Spitzke is a registered nurse care manager at Lakeland Health. She discussed her field alongside her colleague, nurse practitioner Kim Felton.

Spitzke answered a lot of questions that ranged from the hours she worked to the requirements she needed for school. However, some of the questions were more fun.

“I was also asked if it was hard to give shots,” Spitzke said. “I’ve enjoyed how curious the kids are. It’s nice to know they care enough to find out for themselves. I wish I had something like this when I was younger.”

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. 18, 2016)

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River Park master plan revealed: Benton Township trustees approve $4.2M development

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A rendering of the River Park master plan that Benton Township trustees got a look at Tuesday.

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Over the last few months, residents have been coming to Benton Township Board meetings expressing concern over the condition of River Park.

It was revealed Tuesday that the township has plans in store for the park along the St. Joseph River, including a $4.2 million development.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, trustees were given a look at the River Park master plan. No action was required by the board, as the township will begin its search for funding.

Matt Levandoski, landscape architect of Prein & Newhof, presented the master plan to trustees and mapped out everything that would be added to the park.

Along the riverfront, Levandoski said the plan is to enhance the fishing opportunities by adding a north and south fishing platform, along with kayak launches.

The master plan calls for additional playgrounds, two man-made fishing ponds that are further inland from the river, walking paths, a lodge for restrooms, an 18-hole disc golf course in the wooded area, a splash pad and a few fields for sports.

Levandoski said the fishing ponds would be a safer way to fish for families, rather than along the river.

“When I first visited the site, I noticed how gorgeous it was,” Levandoski said. “It has the river right next to it. The size of the land and proximity to the neighborhood is a big plus.”

The area closest to the entryway would have two basketball courts, a tennis/pickle ball court, and new baseball and softball fields that could be used for multiple sports like soccer, football and T-ball.

To further encourage outside activity, Levandoski proposed a loop road to connect to each part of the updated park.

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A covered picnic shelter at River Park in Benton Township is pictured Wednesday. The Township Board got a look at the park’s master plan Tuesday. It would add a splash pad and basketball courts. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Among the reasons for making these changes was to reduce maintenance. With less grass, comes less mowing expenses, Levandoski said.

Superintendent Kelli Nelson said the township began looking into applying for park grants last March.

Due to the vast need of improvements at the park, Nelson said they spoke with Berrien County’s parks director. They were told to create the master plan and look at the park as “a clean slate.”

As part of the process, Nelson said Prein & Newhof incorporated some of the public input from the previous five-year recreational plan.

“As we come into the 2017 (Michigan Department of Natural Resources) grant cycle, we’ll have a clearer vision of where to apply for grants and where we want to start in development,” Nelson said.

Treasurer Debbie Boothby said there is no timeline on when the park’s redevelopment would be complete as it depends on the grant cycle and what’s available.

“We are going to pitch our project toward what the state is offering,” Boothby said. “I’ve been here for 12 years and we haven’t done any big projects at the park 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 Nov. 17, 2016)

DeNooyer dealership seeks brownfield credits from Benton Township

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — A Kalamazoo car dealer is seeking help from the Berrien County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority for some unexpected costs attached to a Benton Township property.

In the process of buying township property along M-139, DeNooyer Automotive Group LLC paid to have some environmental assessments done on the land, which once housed a gas station. Contaminants were found, and DeNooyer is looking to recapture some of the assessment costs through the county’s brownfield authority.

Because the county needs the local government’s joint approval, Berrien County Community Development Director Dan Fette was at Benton Township’s board meeting Tuesday.

Trustees agreed to place the property in the brownfield plan just as they did the purchase agreement with DeNooyer: unanimously.

Fette said while the Berrien County Board of Commissioners has not approved the brownfield, the Brownfield Authority had.

“We will have a public hearing on Dec. 1, at which it is anticipated to be approved,” Fette told trustees. “DeNooyer has taken additional environmental investigations and have to prepare something called a due care plan.”

By placing the property in the brownfield plan, DeNooyer would be given tax incremental finance reimbursement to cover some of the environmental costs to redevelop the commercial property along M-139.

Fette said the brownfield would cover DeNooyer’s costs of no more than $39,500, while the township will be repaid for no more than $75,000 it incurred from land preparation costs.

Fette said it will take some time for the Kalamazoo car dealer and the township to receive returns because DeNooyer does not have a specific redevelopment plan for the site.

“Right now they intend to just close on the purchase and continue to explore their options,” Fette said. “…Worse case scenario, reimbursing these costs could take up to 25 years, but I doubt that would happen. As they start putting down pavement and building structures, we’re going to see the reimbursement process accelerate.”

To account for that, the county put provisions into the brownfield plan.

Once DeNooyer submits a redevelopment plan to the township, they can come back to the county’s brownfield to amend the plan to include additional development costs they may have.

“They’re purchasing a pretty large property from you and investing a lot of money. I doubt they’re going to want that property sitting there vacant for very long,” Fette said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next year you didn’t have a better idea of what they are planning.”

Redeveloping 10 acres

The property in question has two parcels that total about 10 acres on the west side of M-139 and south of I-94.

The smaller of two parcels, numbered as 2488 M-139, contained a gas station for nearly 40 years. The township acquired the parcel of land from the county after it was foreclosed on for unpaid property taxes.

The larger of the two parcels at 2860 M-139, had a hotel on it until the township demolished it in 2014. The township was given the parcel as a donation from Wells Fargo after the hotel was foreclosed on over the owner’s unpaid mortgage.

Todd DeNooyer, general manager of DeNooyer Chevrolet in Kalamazoo, said these actions are just precautionary and do not confirm what they intend to do with the Benton Township property.

“I followed the lead of our real estate attorney,” DeNooyer said Tuesday. “If we do want to redevelopment it, we have nothing specific in mind. We’re just trying to weigh our options and identify the contaminations.”

In August, DeNooyer hired an engineering firm to conduct a Phase I environmental site assessment of the property.

The investigation found that the smaller of two parcels that formerly contained leaking underground storage tanks has contaminated materials that also migrated into the neighboring property. The investigation also revealed the known contamination occurred before either the township and DeNooyer became owners of the site.

Trustees first approved the sale agreement with DeNooyer Automotive for the property during a July board meeting.

The agreed upon price is still for $390,000. The original asking price was $400,000. The property was listed for a year and half before the township got an offer close to the asking price.

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. 16, 2016)

Superintendent takes on comptroller duties for Benton Township

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — In addition to her role as Benton Township superintendent, Kelli Nelson agreed Tuesday to perform the functions of comptroller.

Trustees approved the employee addendum at their Tuesday board meeting to make up for the comptroller vacancy. The township will continue its search for a comptroller.

The township is without a comptroller after they received formal notice from its chosen candidate in mid-October that she would not accept the job. The formal notice came a week after the board agreed to her hiring.

“We thought we had the comptroller position filled and the person that was interested had taken on another position,” Treasurer Debbie Boothby said. “Since there is a vacancy and there’s a lot of work to be done, Kelli agreed to work longer hours and an additional day to make up the time while we’re looking for a comptroller.”

Nelson will be paid the same rate she receives for any additional duties. Nelson already works four days a week as superintendent, but the addendum states it is her discretion on whether to work the additional day if necessary.

The addendum will run no later June 30, 2017.

“It’s just a tough time right now since we’re working on the budget and have some software initiatives that are being put in place,” Nelson said. “Right now was a hard time to find someone new with all that stuff coming in. We’ll continue the search and hopefully have somebody prior to the audit of the 2016 year.”

Nelson originally took over as superintendent Oct. 1 for a retiring Elden Piontek. She had already assumed a lot of Piontek’s responsibilities at the start of her most recent contract.

Nelson was given a three-year contract, which still ends Sept. 30, 2019. Nelson will be paid about $80,300 a year – a figure that remains the same as she was being paid to be controller.

Nelson was first hired to serve as the township’s controller in December 2009 and worked through December 2012. She then took one year off and came back in the beginning of 2014.

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. 16, 2016)

A bird’s eye view: Realtor launches virtual tour of downtown SJ

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A screen shot is taken from the virtual tour of downtown St. Joseph. The tour was set up by the RE/MAX by the Lake real estate firm. They say the tour may be expanded in the future if more businesses wish to participate.

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — With the help of a local real estate firm, tourists and potential homebuyers can get a good look at businesses in downtown St. Joseph from their computers.

With the help of marketing firm Classic Communications, Lars and Liz Petzke have launched an aerial drone 360-degree virtual city tour of St. Joseph. The tour can be accessed by visiting www.visitstjoemi.com.

The tour implements immersive virtual reality, allowing site visitors to pivot in several directions and zoom in to see images from the downtown St. Joseph area. The view and feeling of movement duplicates what a drone captures from above.

Lars Petzke, owner of RE/MAX by the Lake, said the project was completed in the later part of the summer through the use of FAA-sanctioned aerial drones.

The idea is to give potential homebuyers and visitors the chance to see what St. Joseph has to offer.

“We wanted to create a virtual view of our town. Something that could benefit folks from out of the area,” Petzke said. “It was a showpiece for our beaches and all our great businesses downtown. My wife was the driving force behind it. She had the idea of getting other businesses involved.”

When pulling up the map, there are several 360-degree views that visitors can select to investigate the area. The current tour map features interactive aerial views of downtown St. Joseph, Silver Beach, Tiscornia Beach, Jean Klock Park, the North Pier lighthouses and St. Joseph High School.

Currently, there is a RE/MAX by the Lake logo floating on screen. By selecting it, visitors get a virtual look inside the ReMax entrance, lobby, boardroom and offices. Petzke said the next step will be to shoot individual 360-degree tours of local St. Joseph businesses and attractions, and then embed them into the aerial map of the city.

This would allow anyone to virtually visit St. Joseph from a computer, tablet or smart phone.

“We were able to line it up with what our vision was,” Petzke said. “Ideally, it can familiarize people with St. Joe and encourage them to buy a home here. In the short term, it helps businesses who take advantage of it.”

Information can be added anywhere on the virtual tour, which includes links to pages, interactive tours, videos or a logo showing where they’re located.

The aerial map is completely scalable, and could be expanded with additional aerial views in the future.

“I’m surprised at how cool it is. I’ve seen some of the videos and tours, but to see it produced for our hometown is just amazing to see,” Petzke said. “We’re really at the ground floor for the public access, but anyone can go online to see it.”

Mapping a city

The website also features an aerial promotional video of St. Joseph produced by Niles-based Classic Communication.

Ron Barger, president of Classic Communications, said they could easily include some of the marinas and connect it to other cities.

“They’re not like Google tours. They are more detailed,” Barger said. “We can put a menu to click on to see what’s is available. When Liz and Lars contracted with us, they became our first private tour we’ve done. Many are done through municipal efforts.”

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A screen shot of the virtual tour of the North Pier lighthouses and surrounding area in St. Joseph.

Prior to mapping downtown St. Joseph, Barger said they created virtual tours of Bridgman and Niles.

The FAA-certified drones are flown above the respective area and take 64- to 128-degree rotation shots that are stitched together for a full shot. The drones’ pilots are required to provide flight plans so the company’s clients are not liable.

There are no shots from more than 400 feet. Barger said they don’t go too high with the drone, otherwise some of the detail in the pictures would be lost.

Berger and his team also chose a good day to take photos on. The virtual tour is laden with images of a classic car show going on, which coincided with Chalk the Block sketches still visible on the streets.

Taking the photos and combing them together to form the site took about a month.

Barger feels this form of technology will become a common thing in the next decade as the process is simplified.

“There are so many ways this gets better as technology gets better,” he said. “Right now, as you turn your body while viewing this map on a mobile device, it turns with you. We’ve had three or four other municipalities reach out to us with 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 Nov. 15, 2016)