JR Automation gets 12-year tax abatement, to invest $1.9 million

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — JR Automation Technologies garnered a 12-year tax abatement from Lincoln Township trustees Tuesday night.

The Stevensville business, which designs and builds custom automation equipment, will create 60 jobs over the next three years and invest $1.9 million as a result of the abatement.

Trustees approved the tax abatement for a 25,000-square-foot expansion to JR Automation’s existing building at 7275 Red Arrow Highway in Stevensville. JR Automation officials told trustees the expansion would accommodate the company’s increased production.

Construction is expected to be completed by December.

“Southwest Michigan is a great place to live and raise a family, and we are excited to be offering new job opportunities to the work force here,” said Bryan Jones, CEO of JR Automation. “We look forward to the continued opportunities that will be generated in this community through JR’s expansion.”

Assessor John Baumann said the abatement gives JR Automation a 50 percent reduction in taxes for all entities, with the exception of the state education tax.

Baumann said JR Automation first showed interest in November, when Cornerstone Alliance approached the township with the idea.

Cornerstone Alliance worked with JR Automation, providing help and site development options. With support from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and Kinexus, Cornerstone compiled a case for plant expansion.

“JR Automation is a growing company with sites across the country, and we are grateful they’ve chosen to invest and create high-paying, high-skilled jobs in Berrien County,” said Rob Cleveland, president of Cornerstone Alliance. “As a long-time member of the Michigan family, JR Automation understands the positive business climate and advantages of doing business in the state of Michigan.”

The Stevensville business received a change in its development district. Trustees agreed to amend the Industrial Development District for JR Automation by adding an adjacent parcel to the existing land.

Among the three public hearings trustees held Tuesday, two were in relation to JR Automation. One was for the abatement, while the other was for the amended district.

“Thank you for investing in the township,” Supervisor Dick Stauffer said after both hearings. “We look forward to the expansion and the new jobs.”

The initial public hearings were supposed to take place in January but were postponed twice.

The Stevensville plant originally opened under the name of Dane Systems in 1990. JR Technology Group LLC acquired Dane Systems from the Huizenga Automation Group in 2015.

Dane Systems designed and made manufacturing equipment for aerospace, automotive, construction, consumer products, food processing, furniture, and medical and pharmaceutical industries.

Other agenda items

The board approved the 2017-18 township budget after its third public hearing at Tuesday’s meeting.

Clerk Stacy Loar-Porter said staff expects to have a $121,000 increase to the general fund balance, bringing the total to $1.7 million.

Among the main approvals to the budget are a few parks department projects, which Loar-Porter said the township has been saving for the last few years.

The board will next meet for a joint meeting with the township’s Planning Commission at 6 p.m. March 28. The next regularly scheduled board meeting will be at 7 p.m. on April 4 at 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 March 15, 2017)


A renovated smile: St. Joseph Dentistry settles into new building


Dr. Charles Howenstine reopened his practice, St. Joseph Dentistry, in a new location featuring state-of-the-art technology like massaging patient chairs. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Charlie Howenstine says it’s all about comfort.

That’s why his patients now sit in massage chairs and look up at flat screen televisions sets when they are in his dental chair.

Howenstine opened his new dentistry in August, about a year and half after breaking ground on a project that connected Niles Avenue to Hollywood Road.

Formerly known as Howenstine Dental, it was renamed St. Joseph Dentistry. The two-dentist operation is led by Howenstine and Dr. Theresa Burt.

Howenstine said he decided to get a new office building after Dr. Jeffrey Schmidt chose him to take over the dental practice in 2012. They were working at the corner of Niles Avenue and Ansley Drive, but Howenstine chose to move further down the road into Royalton Township.

They made their current location, 3386 Niles Road, twice as big as the dentistry they were working out of, thinking there would be room to grow. Just as they were nearing the project’s completion, Dr. Harvey Johnson in Stevensville reached out to Howenstine and Burt to take over his patients.

“We instantly doubled in size, which is a blessing because we’re twice as big now,” he said. “It happened quickly.”

Howenstine hails from Rice Lake, Wis., and came to the area to be closer to his wife’s family, who live in South Bend. Burt was a Naval dentist before finding her way to St. Joseph Dentistry.

There are eight “operatories,” with which patients are seated in for checkups. It is in these rooms where the heated chair, TV and other technology comes into play.

Howenstine said it is the largest, state-of-the-art dentistry in Berrien County. The dentist is an active member of an online dentist group called Dental Town. The group includes dentists across the country who post some of their ideas on best practices.

This group, Howenstine said, gave him some of the best ideas he used in the build out of the new dentistry.

“I mean who thinks to put a TV on the ceiling? It turned out to be a great idea for patients to pass the time while we’re at work.”

He said he chose the location for convenience and patient visibility with its access points and proximity to I-94.

With a large reception area and expanded break room, Howenstine said the new building is supposed to benefit both patients and staff. The move to Royalton has also more than doubled the amount of staff members at St. Joseph Dentistry.

“Other than the soothing colors, it’s clean, nice and new,” he said. “It really invokes a sense of calm in patients. We do everything we can to make it a comfortable experience. We also stress an importance on time. We don’t make you wait.”

The dentistry is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, or to schedule an appointment, call 281-8080.

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 March 12, 2017)

Housing market moves forward in 2017

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Buyers have not been deterred by the shrinking inventory of homes for sale in Southwest Michigan.

Last year, the housing market set records for home sales and selling prices nearly every month. In the year-over-year comparison, 2016 became the new peak year for the local housing market. According to Philip Amodeo, association executive of Southwestern Michigan Association of Realtors Inc., 2017 is keeping pace after the first month.

“It was a long road back from 2006, the previous peak year, but January 2017 continued the record shattering trend,” Amodeo said. “The number of houses sold, total dollar volume, and the average and median selling prices were higher than in January 2016 and also were higher than any previous January going back to 2006.”

There were 203 houses sold in January 2017 compared to 187 in January 2016 for a 9 percent increase.

At the end of January, the average time a home was on the market before it sold was 139 days compared to 115 days in January 2016. This was a 21 percent increase.

The total dollar volume in January 2017 was up 16 percent over January 2016 and the average selling price of $214,278 in January 2017 jumped 7 percent from the average selling price in January 2016.

For January 2017, the median selling price of $142,000 increased 6 percent over the median selling price in January of last year.

“The inventory level of houses for sale dropped to a new low of 4.9-months supply at the end January 2017 (for the region), Amodeo said. “There were 1,465 houses on the market compared to 1,830 in January 2016. This was a 20 percent decline from last year.”

Locally, the mortgage rate decreased from 4.37 in December to 4.32 in January. Nationally, the Freddie Mac mortgage rate in January was 4.19 compared to 4.32 in December for a 30-year conventional mortgage.

Across the country

According to the National Association of Realtors, existing-home sales stepped out to a fast start in 2017 and increased in January to the fastest pace in almost a decade.

All major regions except for the Midwest saw sales gains last month.

Total existing-home sales expanded 3.3 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.69 million in January from a revised 5.51 million in December 2016.

January’s sales pace is 3.8 percent higher than a year ago and surpasses November 2016 as the strongest month since February 2007.

NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said January’s sales gain signals resilience among consumers even in a rising interest rate environment.

“Much of the country saw robust sales activity last month as strong hiring and improved consumer confidence at the end of last year appear to have sparked considerable interest in buying a home,” he said. “Market challenges remain, but the housing market is off to a prosperous start as homebuyers staved off inventory levels that are far from adequate and deteriorating affordability conditions.”

The median existing-home price for all housing types in January was $228,900, up 7.1 percent from January 2016. January’s price increase was the fastest since last January and marks the 59th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Midwest decreased 1.5 percent to an annual rate of 1.29 million in January, and are 0.8 percent below a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $174,900, up 6.5 percent from a year ago.

Nationally, the total housing inventory at the end of January rose 2.4 percent to 1.69 million existing homes available for sale, but is still 7.1 percent lower than a year ago and has fallen year-over-year for 20 straight months.

Unsold inventory is at a 3.6-month supply at the current sales pace – unchanged from December 2016.

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 March 11, 2017)

Marching for togetherness: Whirlpool, 100 Women Strong joins forces for gender equality


Marilyn Bryan, left, of Niles joins walkers during a march at Plank’s Tavern on the Water, which coincided with International Women’s Day on Wednesday. The march was part of an event called Tennies & Toasts. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Shannon Sigmund likes to talk about women’s rights and is the first to explain that feminism isn’t just for one gender.

The St. Joseph resident was among the dozens of women who gathered at Plank’s Tavern on the Water on Wednesday to take part in Tennies & Toasts. The public event was put on by the Women’s Network, a Whirlpool Corp. employee resource group, as a way to celebrate women and raise funds for 100 Women Strong.

Sigmund opted to donate money to make a sign that she could carry during the 2.5-mile march that was part of the fundraising event. Sigmund used several colors to form the statement “Feminist: Any person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”

“Anyone who believes in equality between men and women are technically a feminist,” Sigmund said. “I like to spread the word and fight for equality. This looked to be a good way to do both.”

Sarah Spoonholtz, chairwoman for 100 Women Strong, said the nonprofit was thankful to benefit from and be a part of the event.

The Berrien County organization provides financial assistance to women who are ineligible for other community resources, but find themselves in need of emergency help.

“We want to make sure we have the ability to not only be a hand out to these women, but a hand up,” Spoonholtz said. “Our slogan is women helping women, one woman at a time.”

The march itself began at Plank’s, where it crossed the Blossomtime Bridge, wound through downtown St. Joseph and over the M-63 bridge before returning to Plank’s.

Sara Horvath, co-lead for the Women’s Network, said they wanted to celebrate the women in the community and chose Wednesday for the event because it was International Women’s Day.


Shannon Sigmund of St. Joseph creates a sign before the start of a march at Plank’s Tavern on the Water, which coincided with International Women’s Day on Wednesday. The march was part of an event called Tennies & Toasts. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

The Women’s Network has done events with 100 Women Strong before, but Horvath said they haven’t done a march until this year. The event’s fundraising aspect included donated items from various local businesses that were won through a drawing.

“There are various communities within Whirlpool and Whirlpool is such a big part of the community, so it’s important we do events like this with a very impactful organization,” Horvath said, referring to 100 Women Strong.

Marilyn Bryan got wind of the event through Facebook and decided to drive in from Niles. Like Sigmund, Bryan said she came alone in search of a combination of solidarity and togetherness.

On the march through the Twin Cities, Bryan held a sign that read, “Teach girls to be brave, not perfect.”

“With the current events and how everything is going on, I wanted to be a part of something like this and take a stand,” Bryan said.

Sigmund said there needs to be more open events like this feminism is going to overcome the stigma it sometimes gets. Sigmund said everyone just has to work together with others.

“I would like to see St. Joe and the Southwest Michigan area start to support things like this,” she said. “I feel like this is great way to support the community and bring people together. Coming here alone today, I knew I wasn’t going to have a hard time getting along with somebody.

“We’re stronger together.”

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 March 9, 2017)