St. Joseph DDA to look into replacing banners

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Out of the 18 banners that hang among various posts in downtown St. Joseph, about a dozen need to be replaced.

At the St. Joseph Downtown Development Authority board meeting Thursday, members discussed allocating funding for getting new banners as part of its budget.

“We’re in an area where the winds are high and inclement weather isn’t out of the ordinary,” DDA Director Susan Solon said. “These high winds destroy our banners quicker than we’d like.”

As a result, it’s become a choice between repairing the banners or not putting them up.

The DDA does pay for the banners, and has done so about three times during the last 10 years, Solon said. The board asked Solon to get quotes for new banners in time for next month’s meeting.

Board member Debbie Sailor, owner of the Jimmy John’s in St. Joseph, said she liked what Stevensville did with its banners.

“For most of the year, the banners in downtown (Stevensville) are pictures of high school athletes, which the athletic department and the parents pay for,” Sailor said. “They’re great to look at, it’s a fun way to support students and the banners are essentially paid for.”

Shuttling forward

DDA members discussed adjusting the shuttle service during the peak tourist season as a way to alleviate the traffic that comes through downtown in the spring and summer.

With more than 70 events occurring in downtown St. Joseph each year, the city has discussed increasing safety for residents and retailers.

“We met with the Krasl Art Fair. It’s a wonderful event. It brings in the right people, but it closes our streets for up to three or four days,” Solon said. “We are trying to decrease – not eliminate – but decrease the congestion in our downtown. One of those ways is keeping Lake Boulevard open as often as we can.”

In order to do so, the Krasl Art Fair’s organizers asked for the city to partner with them on the shuttle service. They have shuttle service stops from St. Joseph High School, Edgewater and Hilliard Lyons on State Street.

Sailor asked board members whether they wanted her to submit a request for proposal on expanding the shuttle service.

Sailor said it would take three to four years until the public became fully aware of any changes, which meant it would cost more to market the change than the service itself.

Board members didn’t lean one way or the other, but told Sailor that if a change was going to be made, the city and the DDA would have to make it more than just a one-year commitment.

The next board meeting is at 8:30 p.m. on March 16.

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 Feb. 24, 2017)

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Snyder: More time needed on school closures

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

LANSING — On Thursday, Gov. Rick Snyder said more time and work are needed to determine the best course of action for the 38 schools on the state’s potential closure list.

State School Reform/Redesign officials released a list Jan. 20 of more than three dozen schools statewide that they want to close because they were in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s Top-to-Bottom list for three straight years.

The list includes three schools in Benton Harbor Area Schools – International Academy at Hull, STEAM Academy at MLK and Dream Academy. Besides in Benton Harbor, schools on the list that will possibly be closed are in Saginaw, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Muskegon and Pontiac.

“Any action we take will have long-lasting consequences, and we need to take the time to get this right,” Snyder said in a news release. “That’s why I want our SRO team to work closely with State Superintendent Brian Whiston and the Michigan Department of Education to reach out and coordinate all the latest information with local superintendents and districts.”

Snyder asked the SRO and the MDE to have all reviews and decisions ready by May, and that any decisions available before then should be announced as soon as they are ready.

Each year, schools in the bottom 5 percent of all public schools in Michigan are identified as “priority schools” and monitored for turnaround in subsequent years.

State law requires that schools identified in the bottom 5 percent of all schools write plans and receive support services. Schools are eligible to leave priority school status if they meet three exit criteria after four years of implementing redesign plans.

Earlier this year, 79 schools exited the priority list.

The state’s Revised School Code, which was amended in 2009 under then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm and in June under Snyder, requires the SRO to order districts to close those schools unless the closure would result in unreasonable hardship for the students.

“Our vision at the SRO is for every kid in Michigan to have access to a globally competitive education,” State School Reform Officer Natasha Baker said in the release. “All kids deserve access to a quality school that will prepare them for a good life after high school. That’s why our team remains dedicated to taking action when schools are not providing students with a quality education. In some instances, this has been the case for over a decade.”

Snyder said closure may not be the right option for serving students and their families due to the hardship it would create. But there still must be some action taken to fix a failing school.

That’s why he is having Baker’s and Whiston’s teams collaborate on possible solutions.

“I appreciate the good working relationship that has developed between the Michigan Department of Education and the School Reform Office, and now we can build upon that to help students in struggling schools,” Whiston said in an email. “Closing a school is a tough decision and sometimes there just are no other options that make sense, but we need to work closely with a local district and the community they serve to reach our conclusions together.”

Reforming the school closure process has been in discussion among lawmakers the last few months.

Two bills were recently introduced in the state Senate, which would repeal all or part of the state’s Revised School Code that deals with accountability and school accreditation. In his news release, Snyder addressed these efforts by state senators.

“We know that legislators want to review and possibly replace the law that the SRO is governed by, and I look forward to working on that with them,” he said. “We must ensure all students have a pathway to Michigan’s future success. That path starts at home and continues straight through the school doors.”

Several Benton Harbor church leaders arranged for buses to take residents to Lansing on Friday to tell state representatives to leave their schools alone.

The march is expected to start at Central United Methodist Church in Lansing and go to the state School Reform Office.

“I understand the anxiety that parents have when there is a discussion about a school being closed and that everyone wants answers right away. But if we are going to do this right, we are going to have to take the time to do the right thing,” Snyder said in the release. “We have heard from communities and their elected officials about the desire to have more input into this process and we will consider feedback from local communities as we move forward.”

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 Feb. 24, 2017)

Berrien County deputy pursuit leads to fatal crash

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

SOUTH BEND — A suspect who was allegedly fleeing Berrien County police was involved in a fatal crash across state lines Tuesday.

The crash, which occurred around 4 p.m. Tuesday, took place at Indiana 933 and Darden Road – about 2 miles from the Michigan-Indiana border.

With a Berrien County deputy in pursuit, a Chevy TrailBlazer crashed into the side of a pickup truck that was being driven by a 62-year-old South Bend man. The driver of the pickup truck, Andre Northern, died at the scene.

The Fact Alcohol Crash Team, also known as FACT, was assigned to investigate the crash and how the pursuit began. FACT detectives learned Berrien County Sheriff Deputy Matthew Walls spotted the TrailBlazer about 1.5 miles north of the Indiana border.

Walls had been informed the vehicle was reported stolen.

According to a news release from the South Bend County Prosecutor’s Office, Walls activated his overhead lights and siren, while still in Michigan, in an attempt to stop the vehicle. The TrailBlazer then fled south, crossing into St. Joseph County in Indiana, where the TrailBlazer eventually crashed into the pickup truck.

The impact was so severe that the pickup truck split in half.

Responders learned there were four people in the TrailBlazer, who were removed by emergency personnel. They were then moved to Memorial Hospital of South Bend for serious injuries.

Two of the occupants remain in intensive care, but are in a stable condition. All four are believed to be from Niles.

Three other vehicles were damaged in the crash, but no one in those vehicles were seriously injured.

The investigation is ongoing as FACT detectives are working with the prosecutor’s office. The news release stated that a decision on whether to press charges will be made Thursday.

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 Feb. 23, 2017)

Benton Township trustees move forward on water main project

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Benton Township trustees accepted a bid for work on the North Shore Drive water main improvement project on Tuesday.

Following the recommendation of Rob Andrew, Merritt Engineering’s vice president and professional engineer, trustees chose the lowest bid of $179,734 from Southwest Transport.

The project involves replacing the existing water main along North Shore Drive from Madeline Avenue to Higman Park Road and installing a water main along East Ridgeway from North Shore Drive to Adams Street. It comes as part of the township’s recent push for water system improvements.

During Tuesday’s board meeting, Superintendent Kelli Nelson said the project bids came in under what the township’s cost estimate was.

Out of the four bids the township received, the lowest three were within $10,000 of each other.

“All of the bids were very competitive,” Andrew said. “The township’s strategy of bidding this in the offseason seems to have worked out well. The prices were extremely favorable.”

The township is already paying Merritt Engineering $14,500 for design and $17,500 for construction engineering services.

Andrew told trustees Water Distribution Supervisor Mike Baldwin was satisfied with Southwest Transport, as the Hartford company has done work for the township before.

The section of water main was identified in the township’s water system capital improvement plan as the second most important line to be fixed or updated. The water system capital improvement plan, which laid out what water lines needed to be addressed in order of importance, was approved in January 2016.

The township has had five breaks on that stretch of pipe in the last six years. The lifetime expectancy for the new water line is 100 years.

System reliability and fire protection in the area is expected to be improved, and frequent breakage of the old line will be eliminated.

With the bid in, Andrew told trustees the start date for construction will be sometime in early April. Southwest Transport has until June to have the project completed, but Andrew said he doesn’t expect construction to take that long.

Workers are expected to use directional drilling under the road to minimize traffic closures.

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 Feb. 22, 2017)

History on display: Hundreds pack St. Joseph High School for glimpse of Cubs’ trophy

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Joe Carter, with the Chicago Cubs organization, prepares the Cubs’ World Series trophy, also known as the Commissioner’s Trophy, for photographs during a stop Monday at St. Joseph High School. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Eric and Ryan Suender drove nearly three hours from the east side of the state and camped outside St. Joseph High School for five hours on Monday.

For all this, the father and son duo were rewarded with the first spot in a long line to see the Chicago Cubs’ World Series trophy at the high school’s fieldhouse.

“We came down here because we are big Cubs fans,” Ryan Suender said. Their family has supported the team from the north side of Chicago dating back to four generations. “It was a great bonding moment for me and my dad.”

The two Clarkson, Mich., residents weren’t expecting to be first in line. After they parked themselves in front of the fieldhouse doors, the next people arrived about 10 minutes later.

By 8:30 a.m. – when the school opened the doors – the line stretched from the school entryway to along the track at Dickinson Stadium.

“We wanted to have an adventure,” Eric Suender said of the trip. “Stuff like this makes memories and this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The Commissioner’s Trophy made its way to the high school shortly after 8:30 a.m., where it was first brought to the competition gym for a few special guests to get their photos taken with it – which included school board members, administrators and county officials.

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While there was no motorcade, the trophy came with its own handlers. In addition, local police were there on standby.

Superintendent Ann Cardon said the school district was contacted by the Cubs organization about three weeks ago.

They had shown interest in the school as a venue for the trophy tour after meeting with St. Joseph City Manager John Hodgson, who recommended the high school.

“It’s inspiring to have it here in St. Joe,” Cardon said after getting her photo taken with the trophy. “We’ve never hosted anything like this before, but we had Miss America here a couple years ago.”

In good company

One of the Cubs biggest fans in Congress also was on hand for pictures Monday.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton played an instrumental part in getting the trophy to Michigan’s 6th Congressional District.

The Cubs called him in December, asking if he wanted the trophy to come to Southwest Michigan for a day. Upton said he chose President’s Day because it is a federal holiday, which ensured he wouldn’t be interrupted by voting sessions in Washington, D.C.

Upton said he originally recommended Silver Beach Pizza as the St. Joseph location. However, the Cubs advance team said it would have been too small.

“That’s where I watched Game 7, and they always have the Cubs game on,” Upton said of Silver Beach Pizza. “But the school worked perfectly for this. It’s so nice to see everyone enjoying the trophy.”

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Ann Cardon, superintendent of St. Joseph Public Schools, left, and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton pose for a photograph with the Cubs’ World Series trophy, also known as the Commissioner’s Trophy, during a stop Monday at St. Joseph High School. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

The Commissioner’s Trophy was taken to the Cityscape Events Center in downtown Kalamazoo later on Monday. But Upton said he is working to bring the trophy to the nation’s capitol in June.

Heather Way-Kitzes, a Cubs spokeswoman and manager of government and neighborhood relations, said the trophy tour has more than 120 stops throughout the U.S. It will even travel to Mesa, Ariz. on Wednesday, for spring training.

Due to the length of the franchise’s championship drought, Monday marked the first time a Cubs World Series trophy had been in Michigan.

With that history in mind, Paul Dobleski said he and his wife were not going to miss the Commissioner’s Trophy visit to St. Joseph. The Stevensville resident and Chicago native used to live about seven miles from Wrigley Field.

Walking three blocks and catching the bus to the games was a recurring trip for Dobleski when he was a kid. He recalled going with his mom, sister and aunt to Wednesday games – which he referred to as Ladies’ Day, when women could attend Cubs game for free.

Dobleski said he hopes the Cubs repeat as champions, but doesn’t want to get too greedy.

“I don’t want to look a gift horse in the face. I’m just happy to see them win in my lifetime,” Dobleski said. “I have relatives who are no longer with us that weren’t able to see them win. I have an uncle that still lives in Chicago, he served during World War II. He’s 90 years old and this is the greatest thing he’s ever seen. As soon as I get home, I’m sending him a picture.”

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 Feb. 21, 2017)

Poverty and privilege: Interact Clubs learn about low-income obstacles

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From left, Nathan Janson, Sally Passaro and Evelyn Russell portray a family as they visit a quick cash business during a poverty simulation exercise Saturday morning at The Boys & Girls Club of Benton Harbor. Participants in the simulation experienced some of the challenges low-income families face on a daily basis. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Benjamin Janson spent an hour in poverty Saturday morning.

The Lake Michigan Catholic High School senior took part in a poverty simulation session along with 50 students from other schools at the Boys & Girls Club in Benton Harbor.

Participants were assigned a persona with specific family members, life circumstances and various employment assignments. Some of the students had kids to look after and received “bus passes” to get from place to place.

The simulation was created as a way for participants to overcome misconceptions about poverty and motivate people to become involved in activities that reduce poverty in their communities.

The students belonged to various Interact Clubs, which operate alongside the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor Rotary Club. The Rotary Club had the Interact Clubs from Bridgman, Catholic, Lakeshore, St. Joseph and others take part in the event and learn as a collective group.

Over the course of an hour, participants began to understand what it would be like to live in a low-income family that was trying to survive from week to week.

The simulation was in a gym, with a few chairs placed in a circle to represent a family’s home. If students returned to their chairs and they were flipped down, that meant they had failed to properly pay off their mortgage. The majority of participants, at one point of the simulation, were in the homeless shelter portion of the gym.

Janson was a pregnant teenager during the simulation. The family he was a part of was evicted from their home, but were able to get it back after a lengthy process.

“We were able to pay off a lot of bills and tried to balance our time and money well,” Janson said. “Lack of time was a hard thing to overcome.”

Each group operated in four rounds – the 15-minute increments represented a week’s time. An hour of the simulation was meant to serve as a month in poverty.

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Participants from local high school Interact Clubs break into small family units Saturday morning during a poverty simulation exercise hosted by Access of West Michigan at The Boys & Girls Club of Benton Harbor. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

The shortened amount of time proved difficult for many who had to buy groceries, pay a mortgage, visit the Department of Human Services, find feasible transportation and take care of a family – while doing so with a limited amount of money.

Participants were also given cards throughout the hour-long program, which represented unexpected life events – good or bad.

When given a card, Janson and his family were forced to pay for new groceries and a repairman to fix their broken refrigerator.

Dayton Stewart, a Bridgman senior, played a high school graduate in his teens who bypassed college to help support his family.

“We were only one disaster away from getting evicted,” said Stewart, who learned the importance of asking for a receipt. “We actually paid our mortgage, but they said we didn’t, so we had to pay it twice.”

With more than 50 million Americans living in poverty, students learned how hard it is to get out of that cycle.

“Balancing your time and money is harder when you don’t have the resources,” Stewart said. “I learned how easy it is to find yourself in this situation one day.”

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 Feb. 19, 2017)

Groceries meets politics: Scarbrough returns to public office to ‘make a difference’

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Linda Scarbrough stands by the entryway of her grocery and feed store in Millburg on Wednesday. Scarbrough is the newest member of the Benton Township Board of Trustees. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — In some way, shape or form, Linda Scarbrough has spent the last 30 years serving Benton Township residents.

She owns the Red & White Grocery & Feed Store in Millburg and represented the township as treasurer for four years.

With the election season in sight, it appeared the township’s Board of Trustees would have at least one new face among its panel. Scarbrough took the chance and made her return to the board in November.

Scarbrough sat down with Herald-Palladium staff writer Tony Wittkowski to talk about her store and what she hopes to see from the township in the next four years.

What made you want to run for the Board of Trustees?

I’ve been active with the township since the early 2000s in different capacities. Whether that be committees or boards. I’m interested in the growth of the township. I just want to be a part of what goes on and hope that I can make a difference.

You were a treasurer for four years. When was that?

It was in, I believe 2000. I was asked to do that. Paul Harvey, who was the supervisor at the time and Jack O’Brien, who was very active in the Democratic Party, came here to visit me as a small business owner. O’Brien was getting the supervisor acquainted with the area and there was a vacancy on the board of trustees.

They asked if I would be willing to fill the position. The next day Mr. O’Brien called me at home and asked for me to run for treasurer. I told him I would do my very best.

I know you were on the Planning Commission. What were some of the other committees?

I was on the Planning Commission. I was on the Property Committee when I was treasurer and I have been on the Board of Review, as well.

OK, how long have you been involved with the township, in any capacity?

Probably 30 years. The first time I participated was when I was working at the store and Jim Boothby called during the election and said, “I am short a person at one of the polling places. Can you fill in?” I was there within an hour and have been doing something ever since.

Have you lived here all your life?

No, I moved here in 1963 from Missouri.

What brought you to the area?

Jobs. We were farmers in Missouri, which is very seasonal. In the ’60s, Southwest Michigan was a booming place. It was a place to go and get a job. We moved during the Thanksgiving holiday and the following Monday, my husband applied to work at Modern Plastics and went to work that Tuesday. We came because we needed work.

How did you end up opening the Red & White Grocery Store?

That started out as a joke. During the gasoline crunch in late ’70s or early ’80s, Avian closed after being here in the area for so, so long. We had a small farm out here, 10 acres, it was a hobby farm. We had some livestock and bought our feed at this store.

We had heard this place was for sale. The guys that were here, had been here for 44 years. One of them built the mill that we still operate. My husband joked “we could buy you a job.” The more we talked about it, the more interested we became. We made them an offer and here we are 35 years later.

Where do you see the township going in the next few years? You’re on the board now and have a front row seat on what comes through the township.

I can only hope I see it going up. I would hope that we can have some magnet stores. The new strip mall that’s coming in over by the Secretary of State(’s office). When they get one vendor in there, it will hopefully be a magnet for another store. We as a township need to be the shining star that people want to come be a part of.

Benton Township has one of the larger footprints in the county. Being on the Property Committee helped me understand that as well as the business districts and where they overlap. I go out to the site and do my homework. I want to see what we’ll be talking about and what controversy we might face.

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 Feb. 20, 2017)