Study: Berrien County among best places to retire early

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — According to a financial website, Berrien County is among the best places in the country to retire early. ranked 217 cities and regions as part of a new study looking into the best and worst places to retire at a younger age.

Berrien County,  identified as the Niles-Benton Harbor Metropolitan Statistical Area in the study, was tied for second in the country, after factoring in three specific categories: cost of living, quality of life and employability.

The cost of living aspect was determined by housing, transportation and health care costs. Quality of life took into account the weather, walkability and access to entertainment. Employability looked into part-time work opportunities for early retirees who wish to remain active.

Each city was given a final composite score out of 100 possible points.

The composite score was based on those three factors, each weighted differently: cost of living (50 percent), quality of life (30 percent), and employability (20 percent).

“Benton Harbor’s ranking in this survey is positive news,” Greg Vaughn, Cornerstone Alliance’s COO and vice president of business development, said in a news release. “These younger retirees often embark on a second career and become entrepreneurs and open their own businesses, which plays an important role in our local economies.”

The websites cited interest in such a survey was in relation to the rise of the Financial Independence and Retiring Early movement, also known as FIRE, that has added emphasis on retiring early.

Rather than leaving the workforce at the age of 62, FIRE retirees aim to retire in their 40s or 50s.

This goal requires an aggressive savings plan, as early retirees must live off their savings until they can expect to withdraw benefits like Social Security or dip into their 401(k) without facing a penalty.

Cities in the South and Midwest dominated the list of best places to retire early, mostly due to a lower average cost of living among the four regions studied.

Southern and Midwestern cities boasted an average cost of living score of 63 – 13 points higher than the average score across all 217 cities studied.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March, 7 2017)


A changing industry: Parable Christian Store adapts better than most


Parable Christian Store at 2913 Niles Ave. in St. Joseph offers a wide selection of Christian books, Bibles, and DVDs. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Lorraine Valk has seen the changes over time.

As owner of the Parable Christian Store in St. Joseph, she has seen her industry ceding ground to new competitors. However, her store is still running and doing well.

Valk was introduced to the industry when she was 6 years old. Her parents took over the Parable bookstore in 1971 when it was still in downtown Benton Harbor. They would move it to its current St. Joseph location in 1976.

Valk and her husband, who works as an accountant in Kalamazoo, would then buy the business from her parents 10 years ago.

“I have a real passion for it. Ten years ago, I never expected where we’re at now,” Valk said. “The industry has just changed by leaps and bounds in the last decade.”

The changes began with music. Christian music was a large part of their business, but the introduction of iPods and digital downloads soon took over. That was the first hit to the industry.

Valk said the peak of Christian retail was at the turn of the century. Enough so, that a lot of Christian stores had expanded into grocery stores in an attempt to become enormous.

In a town with St. Joseph’s population, Valk said this was not common.

Next came the shift to eBooks and audiobooks, which gave the Christian bookstores another blow.


Lorraine Valk, owner of Parable Christian Store St. Joseph, talks about the store’s history during an interview with The Herald-Palladium on Thursday afternoon. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

“The stores that are successful are the ones that are adopting and changing,” Valk said. “Right now we have an awful lot of gifts and a laser engraver. We’ve had people engrave a baby’s name and birth date on a frame.”

Signs of the struggle in Valk’s industry came to the forefront in 2015.

Family Christian Stores, the nation’s largest chain of Christian book and merchandise stores, declared bankruptcy two years ago. In the end, FCS was able to wipe away more than $120 million in debt and bought $20 million in consignment inventory at 70-90 percent off the wholesale costs.

This reorganization allowed FCS to start over with “free” inventory in their stores and without debt. Getting the consignment inventory for cheap left several publishers – which the St. Joseph store works with – empty handed. Many couldn’t absorb the loss and went out of business.

Last week, Family Christian Stores announced they would close all 240 locations in 36 states, liquidating their inventory, and laying off more than 3,000 employees.

It marked as a sad day for Christian retail as FCS’s foreclosure came so soon after its previous bankruptcy reorganization.

The one in Holland closed, and the South Bend and Kalamazoo stores are in the process of liquidating.

Changing with the times

The collapse of a national Christian retailer brought forth the question of whether the business model was structurally broken.

When Valk took over the store 10 years ago, there were about 100 Parable stores. To this day, Valk said they have one of the 17 such stores left.

“I think one of the reasons that I’m still in business is because I am very proactive,” she said. “I’m quick to reordering the things that sell quickly, or returning and marking down the things that don’t sell well.”

The stores still in operation that don’t rely on web sales are going against the grain because of their independence.

“It’s crucial being an independent store,” Valk said. “I can make tiny adjustments every day. Making a change for 250 stores becomes harder to do.”

In addition to the laser engraver, Parable has gone to a digital system for various songs and hymns, which can be burned into a CD for a custom album.


Marylea Mitchell of St. Joseph checks out an engraved plaque Thursday at Parable Christian Store St. Joseph. The store owner says the shop is in a strong position despite online challengers. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

There is a Catholic section in the store, cards for different occasions, church supplies, Sunday school material along with robes for pastors and priests. The store can custom order what they don’t have as well, Valk said.

But the books are the biggest draw.

St. Joseph resident Marylea Mitchell said she’s been shopping at Parable for 20 years.

She said she keeps coming back because there’s that personal touch that comes with the store.

“We always find other things when we’re in here,” Mitchell said. “I just like having a nice Christian store in my hometown. If there is something we are looking for that they don’t have, they help us find it.”

While Valk is thankful for customers like Mitchell, she said it’s on the owners to keep their Christian retail stores thriving.

“We’re hanging tight, but I’m not shy about telling people to shop local,” Valk said. “We need to support the ones that are left.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 5, 2017)