Unemployment remains stable in Southwest Michigan

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

The unemployment rate proved stagnant throughout Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties in November.

According to the state’s Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, typical seasonal hiring in retail trade was partially offset by continued seasonal layoffs in leisure and hospitality and in business services.

All four Southwest Michigan counties’ jobless rate changes were minimal, while three of which recorded jobless rates below the statewide-unadjusted unemployment rate of 4.5 percent in November.

Allegan County’s unemployment rate – the lowest in the region – rose from 3.2 percent to a 3.3 percent. Berrien County increased its jobless rate from 4.3 percent to 4.4 percent, and Cass County rose from 4.2 percent in October to 4.3 percent in November.

Van Buren County’s jobless rate rose from 4.4 percent to 4.7 percent – making it the highest unemployed county in the Southwest Michigan region.

Michigan finished with a 4.5 percent unemployment rate in November, while the U.S. produced a 4.4 percent jobless rate.

A look at Berrien jobs

November non-farm payroll jobs in Berrien fell by 800 to a total of 62,700. Seasonal job cuts were recorded in leisure and hospitality, professional and business services, and construction.

The 100 job additions each in manufacturing, retail trade and government were not large enough to compensate for these employment reductions.

Since November of last year, the goods-producing sector added 400 positions – all in manufacturing – while employment in the service-providing sector was flat. Private service industries that added jobs since November 2015 included leisure and hospitality, education and health, and financial activities.

However, employment in professional and business services fell by 600 over the year. Total non-farm payroll employment in Berrien County was 400 above November 2015 levels. The current November payroll jobs were still below the pre-recessionary November 2007 level by 5.6 percent.

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. 25, 2016)

A new peak year for housing?

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Housing analysts are still waiting for the market to show some signs of decline.

In November, the Southwest Michigan housing market continued to break records in monthly and year-to-date numbers and prices.

Philip Amodeo, association executive of the Southwestern Michigan Association of Realtors Inc., said for the past few years the numbers have been falling in line with what the housing market saw in 2006 – the country’s peak year.

“In 2008 through 2010, we saw numbers and prices decline,” Amodeo said. “From 2011 until now, the market has slowly rebuilt itself. If the market continues to surge through December, we may need to realign our trend watch to set 2016 as the new peak year.”

From January to the end of November, the region was six houses shy of the number of houses sold in all of 2015. By comparison, this gap was an 8 percent gain over the year-to-date standing in November 2015.

In November 2016, there were 289 houses sold compared to 222 houses sold in November of last year for a 30 percent increase. Looking at the number of houses sold in the year-to-year comparison for November and year-to-date, both numbers set new records, Amodeo said.

“The average time a home was on the market before it sold in November was 114 days, compared to 131 days in November 2015. This was a 13 percent decrease,” Amodeo said. “Year to date, the time on market has dropped from 134 days to 119 – an 11 percent decline. This is a positive trend, indicating that homes are selling at a faster pace than recent years.”

The total dollar volume for November and year-to-date also broke records.

In November 2016, the total dollar volume at $57.5 million surpassed the $41.2 million set in November 2015 by 39 percent. Year-to-date, the total dollar volume has grown 12 percent.

The average selling price in November increased to $199,042 from $185,992 in November 2015 for a 7 percent climb. The November average selling price was the only housing market factor that did not break the record in the year-to-year comparison.

However, the year-to-date average selling price at $200,309 was the highest average selling price in the past 11 years.

The median selling price in November rose 14 percent to $137,000 from $120,000 in November 2015. Year-to-date, the median selling price was up 4 percent. Amodeo said both median selling prices, in November and year-to-date, raised the bar in the year-to-year comparison.

At the end of November, there were 1,877 houses on the market compared to 2,169 in November 2015. At that inventory level, the local housing market had a 6.3-months supply of homes for homebuyers. The inventory declined from 7.9-months supply in November 2015 and was down from the 7.1-months supply in October 2016.

Locally, the mortgage rate jumped to 3.92 percent from 3.58 in October. In November 2015, the rate was 4.1.

Across the country

According to the National Association of Realtors, a big surge in the Northeast and a smaller gain in the South pushed existing-home sales up in November for the third consecutive month.

Total existing-home sales rose 0.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.61 million in November from 5.57 million in October. The November sales pace was the highest since February 2007 (5.79 million) and was 15.4 percent higher than a year ago (4.86 million).

NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said it’s been an a great three-month stretch for the housing market as 2016 nears the finish line.

The median existing-home price for all housing types across the country in November was $234,900, up 6.8 percent from November 2015. The November price increase marked the 57th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Midwest decreased 2.2 percent to an annual rate of 1.33 million in November, but was still 18.8 percent above a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was up 6.5 percent from a year ago.

Nationally, the total housing inventory at the end of November dropped 8 percent to 1.85 million existing homes available for sale, and was 9.3 percent lower than a year ago and has fallen year-over-year for 18 straight months.

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. 24, 2016)

Trustees approve women’s health center site plans

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — InterCare Community Health Network will have another freestanding medical clinic built alongside its Benton Township location in 2017.

Township trustees approved site plans for a women’s health center during Tuesday’s board meeting, which will be built next to Intercare’s Benton Harbor Health Center at 800 M-139.

Tracy Ezell, senior architect and project manager with Byce & Associates, said the proposed building would be directly north of the existing 800 M-139 clinic. The township assigned an address of 796 M-139 to the future building.

The network received notification this year it was a recipient of a $1 million federal grant from the Affordable Care Act’s Community Health Center Fund. This led to plans for the women’s health clinic.

The 1.5-acre property will make way for a 9,500-square-foot women’s health clinic, which InterCare will use for prenatal care and other services.

Ezell told trustees it was a long-term goal to use the land north of the clinic.

“Shortly after the first clinic was built, Lakeland Health transferred most of their women’s health care for prenatal care to the InterCare organization,” Ezell said Tuesday. “Those services are currently housed in the original clinic, which was built for overall general health care. That function will be removed from the original InterCare facility and moved next door.”

The proposed health center would be next to the original InterCare clinic, but would not be physically connected.

According to meeting minutes from the township’s planning commission, InterCare officials anticipate moving most of the staff from the existing clinic to the new building. A few additional employees may be needed.

The revised site plan shows 45 new parking spaces with some of the overflow parking to be provided by the InterCare clinic to the south.

“It’s going to be a shared entry drive,” Ezell said. “When the original project was completed, this drive was planned to service any future project. There are provisions for overflow parking, which would be handled by the main site. It’s a campus plan of sorts.”

A number of patients will be using public transportation, also reducing the need for additional spaces. The site proposes to provide an area for stormwater management – the northeast part of the parcel – under Berrien County Drain Commission review and permits.

Ezell said the extra space in the existing clinic, which was built in 2011, will allow them to systematically renovate space as needed of the new model of health care and plan for growth at the main clinic.

“I’d like to thank you for your proactive runoff plans that you have and integrated into your parking areas,” said Treasurer Debbie Boothby at Tuesday’s meeting. “That has been noticed and mentioned throughout the community.”

InterCare Community Health Network announced plans in 2009 to move its Benton Harbor clinics from the former Mercy Center to a consolidated clinic to be built a few blocks away at the corner of M-139 and Empire Avenue.

InterCare’s West Michigan network, based Bangor, serves more than 50,000 low-income patients each year.

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. 23, 2016)

Benton Township police secure body cameras

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — After nearly a year and a half of research and price comparisons, the Benton Township police will get body cameras for on-duty officers.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Police Chief Vince Fetke explained to trustees how the body cameras would work and the process that went into picking them.

Fetke said they chose the cameras because of how departments that have already gone through a body camera program have found an overall reduction in use-of-force complaints, citizen complaints for police/citizen interactions and an enhanced relationship between the police and communities.

Trustees approved the purchase of 20 Laser Technology Axon 2 body cameras for more than $16,800. However, about $13,500 will be covered through a Edward Byrne Grant that the township received in 2015.

Also listed on the quoted sheet for the equipment is an annual charge of about $5,500 over the course of the next five years for licensing.

The remaining balance will be paid for from the police department budget.

“I think that we all know the importance of this technology, especially in recent months, not only nationally, but locally, in recording critical events that occur with law enforcement,” Fetke said. “When we submitted for this grant, we were looking at a lot of first-generation body cameras that lacked some of the things we were looking for our department.”

Recently, TASER International came out with its latest generation of body camera.

Not only is the latest generation out, but it is a programmable body camera. Fetke said the idea is to reduce any long-term costs in having to replace them with new technology. Each uniformed officer for the township will be issued their own body camera, Fetke said.

“Like our existing in-car camera system, any time an officer has contact with a citizen it shall be activated,” Fetke said. “The officer will turn it on prior to getting out of his vehicle. However, it does have pre-event recording capabilities.”

Pre-event recording allows the body camera to begin recording anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes before the officer hits record.

Fetke said this comes in handy during a situation where an officer is caught off guard in an impromptu event.

When asked by trustees about upgrade possibilities for the cameras, Fetke said because they chose the new generation of body cameras, they will work like a software upgrade. Any new enhancements will be downloaded every month.

When an officer puts the body camera back into its charging dock, the updated software will be downloaded. The body cameras have 12 hours of battery life and 70 hours worth of storage, Fetke said.

The other advantage to the newer generations is the additional software that will be put in police vehicles.

Benton Township already has an in-car system that records activity at the front of a patrol car. Fetke said many police agencies are either going to body cameras, trying to buy them or entertaining the idea.

The Benton Harbor Department of Public Safety bought body cameras through a similar grant last year, and other area departments have looked at the idea. The issue has gained national attention as the conduct of police in some well-publicized cases has come under intense scrutiny.

“In certain situations, such as activating overhead lights or the sirens, it will automatically trigger the camera without the officer having to touch the camera to capture the events,” Fetke said. “If anybody saw the film footage for the Benton Harbor incident, they had a first-generation of this camera and it worked quite well.”

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. 22, 2016)

Benton Township board OKs next year’s budget

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Benton Township Board members approved several budgetary items to close out the last meeting of 2016.

On Tuesday night, trustees approved next year’s budget, moved for a budget amendment for 2016 and gave themselves and township employees 2 percent raises.

The board recessed from its regular meeting briefly to hold its budget hearing. Superintendent Kelli Nelson presented the proposed budget and went through each fund for trustees and audience members.

In regard to taxable value, Nelson said Benton Township’s value decreased due to the phase out of the personal property tax.

“If we are reimbursed from the state, based on the Essential Services Assessment, we will have constant property tax revenue,” Nelson reassured the board. “If we are reimbursed, as (the state) said we would be come February, our tax revenues will remain constant.”

Nelson said if the township is not reimbursed, the loss would be about 4.5 percent of its tax revenue.

Trustees then approved Nelson’s proposed break-even budget of $2.9 million. The general fund budget included the library contribution, money set aside for unexpected demolitions and drains at large.

Nelson said the township will be fully funding its annual required contribution for retiree health coverage.

One of the last items trustees approved for the 2017 budget was a 2 percent increase in the board’s salary and per diem.

That means Supervisor Kevin White will receive about $28,000 a year, Clerk Carolyn Phillips will get more than $54,000 annually, Treasurer Debbie Boothby will receive nearly $51,000 a year and trustees will now earn $96 per meeting attended.

The budget amendment

Nelson began the meeting by presenting a proposed budget amendment to close out the 2016 balance.

First, there was an amendment to general fund revenue for building licenses and permits.

Revenue from the sale of fixed assets was also amended. This accounted for the sale of the old Holiday Inn hotel to DeNooyer Chevrolet this year.

“We have experienced a significant amount of development within the township and the permit fees have exceeded what was originally budgeted,” Nelson said. “Sometimes we don’t amend the revenue, but with the expenditures we are making, I found it necessary and prudent to do so.”

Among the expenses amended for the 2016 budget included an unexpected payoff of the Rizzo drain project, charges used to update a storm-damaged parks building and an extra transfer to the township’s equipment and replacement fund.

The next board meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 6 at the Township Hall.

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. 21, 2016)

A revolving door for restaurants: Cafe Mosaic looks to bring stability to Main Street

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Harbor Dog and Sliders, previously located at 325 W. Main St. in Benton Harbor, was open for nearly a year before it closed in 2015. The site will be soon be occupied by Cafe Mosaic. (HP file photo)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — The bright red building in the heart of Benton Harbor is hard to miss.

With the roof meeting at a point, almost steeple-like, there’s also a towering sign adjacent to the structure with the letters F-O-O-D running vertically down either side for anyone traveling the speed limit to know what is sold there.

The building has had several incarnations since it was erected in the 1930s, but lately not many have found success at the location for more than a couple years.

Cafe Mosaic hopes to break that trend as it plans the move to its new home at 325 W. Main St.

Ric Pawloski, executive director of the nonprofit Mosaic Christian Community Development Association, said Mosaic Resale Store opened in Benton Township in 2010. When the resale store relocated to 510 W. Main Street in 2012, Cafe Mosaic debuted.

He predicts the cafe will be just fine at the new location.

Mosaic has until the end of July 2017 to move out of the building it is renting. Whirlpool Corp. bought the building a couple years ago to make way for more parking for its Riverview Campus.

“The cafe will be more stable here because we own the building,” Pawloski said.

The building at 325 Main St. has been home to several diners over the years, from King Kong Xpress – the most recent eatery – to Bonnie’s Breakfast Nook, the All American Diner and Harbor Dogs & Sliders.

For a number of years dating back to the 1950s and into the early 1970s, Bob’s Snappy Service was a mainstay.

Greg Vaughn, chief operating officer and vice president of business development at Cornerstone Alliance, recalls that business having a loyal following.

Vaughn said they were known by many of their customers as the place to go for a hearty breakfast and easily recognized by the iconic neon sign in front of the building.

Harbortown Cafe was in the location for about three years in the mid 2000s, with Cornerstone Alliance assisting the owners to figure out financing.

Willy Lark, owner of Lark’s Bar-B-Que, began his business out of 440 W. Main St. – a block down from the location that’s served as a revolving door for restaurants and diners.

While they moved further away in 2013, Lark said he’s seen several businesses go through the building over the past 20 years.

“I’ve seen a lot of them come through there, but the only one I really remember was Bonnie’s,” Lark said. “Bonnie’s was mostly a breakfast stop. I liked them.”

King Kong Xpress opened in mid-December 2015, but closed after only about a year.

Harbor Dogs and Sliders opened July 2014, after getting word the previous June that the location was available. Three business partners came up with a business plan in six weeks before closing on the sale.

But it also closed after about a year.

Harbor Dogs wasn’t the first purveyor of hot dogs to land in the building. According to Herald-Palladium archives, the All American Diner opened in October 2003. The restaurant offered 99-cent hot dogs, Chicago-style on Mondays and Detroit-style dogs on Wednesdays.

Vaughn predicts Mosaic will buck the trend because it has proven its ability to operate successfully in the downtown.

“They know the market, and like most of the existing eateries in downtown Benton Harbor, they have a following that will likely increase at their new location,” Vaughn wrote in an email. “They should continue this success in this landmark building, especially now that Whirlpool has added over 1,000 employees with the completion of their third building at the Riverview Campus just down the street.”

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. 20, 2016)

Classic Nintendo console a hot commodity

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition video game console has become one of this year’s hottest holiday gifts, making it difficult to find in stores.

However, the console was scheduled to be sold today at most Best Buy retailers, including the one in Benton Township.

The NES Classic Edition is a replica of the original NES system that comes with a built-in library of 30 retro games such as “Super Mario Bros.” and “The Legend of Zelda.”

“Best Buy expects to have only limited quantities available on Dec. 20 that will be sold on a first-come, first-serve basis in bricks and mortar stores, but not online,” a store news release stated.

Since there were limited quantities, the Benton Township store treated the release like that of the Black Friday ticketing process. The amount of tickets handed out equaled the amount of consoles available.

No other businesses in Southwest Michigan would confirm plans to sell the consoles today.

Nintendo released the NES Classic Edition in the United States on Nov. 10. The $60 device is being marketed to nostalgic gamers who remember the old games.

The NES Classic Edition sold out at retailers across the world soon after it was made available. Some customers who found consoles have tried selling them online for more than the retail price. In some instances, the consoles have surpassed the $300 mark when resold on eBay.

Officials from the GameStop, Best Buy and Target in Benton Township said their businesses only received a few consoles in November, which sold out within a few hours.

Retailers in the Twin Cities area said they had people travel to their store from Kalamazoo, South Bend and Chicago in search of the game player in November.

The console features the same design as the original console, but is smaller. Nintendo’s hardware also isn’t compatible with game cartridges, so users are only able to play the 30 games that come pre-loaded.

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. 20, 2016)