Modineer gets 12-year tax abatement

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Benton Township trustees Tuesday night approved Modineer Corp.’s request for a 12-year tax abatement.

The abatement will go toward a more than $2 million expansion. Modineer expects to add more than 20 jobs to its Benton Township location.

Niles-based Modineer, a metal stamping company, has two locations – Benton Township and South Bend.

Cornerstone Alliance, an economic development agency, worked with Modineer for several months and presented the tax abatement on its behalf Tuesday.

This is the first of a multi-step process to keep the company in Berrien County, said Greg Vaughn, Cornerstone Alliance’s chief operating officer and vice president of Business Development. Modineer is seeking help from the state to locate their coating division at the Benton Township plant at 2200 E. Empire Ave.

Vaughn said Modineer bought the Benton Township plant about eight months ago.

“Modineer is a growing company, and we are confident they will receive the necessary incentives from the state for the expansion project to occur in Benton Charter Township,” Vaughn said.

The expansion would involve an additional 38,000 square feet to accommodate the business’ coating division.

Robert Fuentes, a Modineer representative, said told trustees they expect to break ground on the expansion by July 1 and be done by October 2018.

“We currently do e-coating and powder coating, which is painting application,” Fuentes said. “We are looking to do a form of military coating next.”

The project is expected to add 21 jobs and retain the existing 45 employees. Fuentes said they are all full-time workers.

Fuentes said Modineer was considering the South Bend plant for the expansion project. However, Benton Township was a preferred area as Modineer is looking to expand the business with military contracts. In order to do so, they needed to be in a HUD Zone, which Benton Harbor and the township are.

Since the abatement was approved, Clerk Carolyn Phillips said 50 percent of what would normally be taken from taxes on the expansion will be waived.

In another matter, trustees rescheduled the May 2 board meeting to Monday, May 1, as the prior date conflicts with a special Benton Harbor schools election. The township hall will be used during the special election.

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 22, 2017)

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Disjointed stretch of M-140 makes little sense to some

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A car passes by the intersection of Maple Grove Road and M-140, south of Eau Claire on Monday. There is no known reason regarding why the stretch of M-140 takes so many turns near Eau Claire. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

EAU CLAIRE — There is a portion of M-140 in Berrien Township, just southeast of Eau Claire, that maneuvers around farmland for no apparent reason.

When looking northbound the state road veers left, onto Maple Grove Road, continues north, then turns right onto Eau Claire’s Main Street before continuing its trek north.

Many in the area find the state road a bit odd, and there seems to be no definitive answer as to why the highway is laid out in this manner.

Nick Schirripa, a Michigan Department of Transport spokesman, said the road must not have been built as a state highway. However, it likely was taken over as a way to connect several Berrien County roads.

After an inquiry from The Herald-Palladium, one of MDOT’s engineers passed along an interesting nugget to Schirripa.

“Looking at the old right-of-way sheets, the best guess is we could not get the farm owners to sell back in the early ’50s, so we just used the road already paved to the west to avoid the marshland or swampy area where Maple Grove Road ends,” Schirripa said. “Also of note, the connection of M-140 where it meets M-62 has a jog not directly on section lines, due to not wanting to build over another swamp.”

Brian Berndt, highway engineer for the Berrien County Road Commission, is known as somewhat of a road historian within his department.

However, Berndt said he has never researched M-140.

zz“That section of M-140 follows a section line,” Berndt explained during a phone interview Monday. “A lot of these roads when they were set up were section line roads. A lot of (county) roads are set up on section lines.”

Through this, Berndt also hypothesized that at some point, the stranger stretch of M-140 was a county road that was taken over as a state route.

After some digging among the road commission’s available documents, Berndt discovered M-140 was a county road as late as 1929. He then found a map in 1934, which showed M-140 as a state highway.

“Somewhere between 1929 and 1934, it was taken over by the state highway department,” Berndt said. “It was the same route back then. That’s how the roads were; they were on a grid.”

While there is no definitive conclusion regarding the reason M-140 doesn’t run straight north, there will always be theories.

“Back in 1929 there was also a railroad out there, just west of the road,” Berndt said, citing an atlas from 1929. “That might have also played into the road’s original construction, but we may never know for sure.”

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 21, 2017)

Butterfly Effect Fitness opens to change lifestyles

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Tanganyika Dudley works out with battle ropes at her recently opened studio, Butterfly Effect Fitness located at 76 W. Wall St., in downtown Benton Harbor. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Tanganyika Dudley opened her fitness studio based on her own personal journey that began a few years ago.

She made a decision several years ago to make a change in her life by adding exercise, which increased her self-confidence and improved her attitude. Dudley now helps others reach their fitness and health goals through her business.

“I started working out in 2015,” Dudley said. “I was 180 pounds. I hired a personal trainer and got addicted.”

Her dramatic weight loss led to opening Butterfly Effect Fitness at 76 W. Wall St. in downtown Benton Harbor. The ribbon cutting was Feb. 11.

Wanting a healthy lifestyle, Dudley offers pole fitness classes, dance aerobics and personal training as a fitness instructor.

Dudley worked with the Women’s Business Center at Cornerstone Alliance to develop a business plan and find a location for the studio.

James Odds, manager for Butterfly Effect Fitness, said the business caters to health and fitness for women and building morale.

“The butterfly effect. The name says a lot. It’s about transformation,” Odds said. “You come in one way and leave as a new person both physically and mentally.”

It offers different programs and techniques to help women target and tone their legs, arms and stomachs. The studio fitness center has battle ropes, squat racks, an ab machine, bench press, treadmill, yoga ball, jump rope, Olympic weights and four poles that can be used to increase upper body strength.

While the business opened later than expected, Dudley joked that it was just in time for area residents to get ready for beach season.

“My experience was with my trainer and how she helped me to show me the way,” Dudley said. “I want to pass that message along.”

Dudley said she’ll give a free session to anyone who brings in this article of The Herald-Palladium.

Butterfly Effect Fitness is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. by appointment. Walk-ins are accepted too. For more information on the new fitness studio, call 269-277-3324.

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 19, 2017)

Unemployment rises with labor force

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

The labor force rose modestly in January for Southwest Michigan, which in arbitrarily affected the unemployment rate.

According to the state’s Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, the number of jobseekers increased considerably from December to January, leading to an increase in the region’s jobless rates.

All four Southwest Michigan counties’ jobless rate changes increased more than they have in the last two years.

Allegan County’s unemployment rate – the lowest in the region – rose from 3.4 percent to 4.5 percent. Berrien County increased its jobless rate from 4.6 percent to 5.7 percent, and Cass County rose from 4.3 percent in December to 5.3 percent in January.

Van Buren County’s jobless rate rose from 5.6 percent to 7.1 percent – making it the highest unemployed county in Southwest Michigan.

Michigan finished with a 5.7 percent unemployment rate in January.

Out of the 83 counties in Michigan, Berrien County had the 26th lowest unemployment rate. Washtenaw County had the lowest jobless rate at 3.4 percent, while Mackinac County was the highest at 21.1 percent.

A look at Berrien jobs

Total non-farm payroll employment in Berrien County fell by 1,100 in January to a total of 60,200. Seasonal job cuts were recorded in leisure and hospitality, professional and business services, retail trade and government.

Employment in manufacturing also declined by 200. However, private educational and health care services added 300 positions in January.

Going back to January 2016, manufacturing created 300 new positions, and a 200-job addition was recorded in private educational and health care services. Construction and retail trade each added 100 jobs to the area’s economy.

However, employment in professional and business services dropped by 400 year to year. Current January non-farm payroll jobs in Berrien County are 700 above 2016 levels. The area still has some way to go to recover the jobs lost during the 2009 recession.

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 19, 2017)

J.C. Penney makes its cuts; Benton Township location not among them

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Among the stores across the country J.C. Penney expected to close this year, its Benton Township location is not among them.

J.C. Penney released its list of 138 stores that will close nationwide Friday morning. The move is expected to affect 5,000 employees.

Seven Michigan stores are included in the list of locations expected to shutter, with the closest stores to Southwest Michigan being in Battle Creek and Holland.

“J.C. Penney is in the process of identifying relocation opportunities within the company for esteemed leaders,” a news release from J.C. Penney’s corporate office read. “Additionally, J.C. Penney will provide outplacement support services for those eligible associates who will be leaving the company.”

J.C. Penney reported in the news release that most closures are expected to occur in June of this year, and most liquidation sales will begin April 17.

The seven stores set to close in Michigan include:

• Lakeview Square Mall, Battle Creek

• Delta Plaza, Escanaba

• Westshore Mall, Holland

• Copper Country Mall, Houghton

• Birchwood Mall, Kingsford

• Midland Mall, Midland

• Cascade Crossings, Sault Ste. Marie

Friday’s news comes less than a month after the retail chain announced it would close 130-140 sites to “align the company’s physical store footprint and omni-channel network.”

In February, J.C. Penney reported the stores closing represent between 13 and 14 percent of the company’s portfolio and less than 5 percent of its sales.

“We believe the relevance of our brick and mortar portfolio will be driven by the implementation of these initiatives consistently to a larger percent of our stores,” Marvin Ellison, company CEO, said in the release. “Therefore, our decision to close stores will allow us to raise the overall brand standard of the company and allocate capital more efficiently.”

The news that the J.C. Penney in Benton Township will remain open comes at a time when the mall it’s attached to, The Orchards Mall, needs it most.

The 528,347-square-foot mall at 1800 Pipestone Road is anchored by J.C. Penney and Carson’s.

Not out of the woods

While the Benton Township store made it through this round of cuts, the 100-plus stores that J.C. Penney is closing this year may not be its last.

Two weeks after telling investors that the chain will close as many as 140 locations this year, two Wall Street analysts told CNBC that more closures may be ahead.

At a meeting with analysts in New York City last Thursday, J.C. Penney’s management said it is testing in its smaller stores some of the initiatives that have been powering its sales in larger locations. According to the CNBC report last week, those tests include a smaller version of its Sephora beauty shop and home appliances.

If the tests are successful, J.C. Penney could keep more stores open. Otherwise, it may lead to additional closings.

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 18, 2017)

The road to compliance: Engineers, architects discuss the impact of regulations

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

Politicians call government regulations “job killers.”

But such laws have birthed a job-creating sector: the compliance industry.

The compliance industry is a not-quite-so-young, ever-changing business sector made up of companies and individuals who help businesses meet standards and regulations. Several firms in Southwest Michigan help companies and local and state governments meet environmental regulations.

Large companies have their own compliance teams. And compliance takes a lot of homework.

Steve Carlisle, director of engineering at Wightman and Associates, has dealt with a lot of state agencies on projects. With Carlisle’s line of work comes regulations his projects must be in compliance with. To stay abreast with these regulations, some training is involved.

The engineering consultant firm, which is based in Benton Township, keeps up to date on regulations through seminars and conferences to engage and understand the changes in the industry.

“They vary quite a bit,” Carlisle said. “In general, most changes are minor tweaks to the existing process. For example, we work with (the Michigan Department of Transportation) quite a bit, and they have standard plans that can change on either an annual or monthly basis.”

Carlisle said it’s not a common practice for Wightman, or others in the engineering industry, to hire out that kind of work.

“We typically handle it internally,” he said in reference to ensuring projects comply with regulations. “We handle it by sending people to various conferences and getting to know how the regulatory agencies work.”

Wightman engages with those agencies early and often, Carlisle said.

This includes the Michigan Department of Transportation, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s sewer, land and water divisions, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Rural Development Funding Agency, Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

All long government names aside, Carlisle said they can go to them if they don’t know everything about a project – even after all the seminars.

“The sooner they are aware of the project, the sooner it can be approved,” Carlisle said. “It’s up to us to approve something that is acceptable. It’s rare to redo designs because if we focus on the compliance side of projects, we know what we’re getting into.”

Popular permits

Rob Andrews, Merritt Engineering’s vice president and engineer, has been in this profession since 1991.

In that time, the compliance industry has changed immensely.

Professional engineers like Andrews used to not have to do continuing education for regulations in their field. About three years ago, Andrews said that changed.

About 30 hours every two years in continuing education is now required for licensed professional engineers.

However, Andrews said engineers have to do more than that to keep up with the industry.

“It sort of never stops,” Andrews said about regulation training. “If you’re a large enough company, you can add a specialist to do those things. If you’re a smaller firm, you have to have people take these responsibilities on themselves.”

As part of some projects, regulations for permits has also tightened up. Andrews said more work goes into demonstrating a project is in line with the rules.

“Overall, the amount of effort required in permitting has increased to a point where now the bulk of the time is spent on permits, rather than the design (of a project),” he said. “The people on the other end of the permitting process are earnest, but there’s always a delay.”

Animal-friendly regulations

Regulations were created to protect not only the interest of people and businesses, but animals as well.

Whereas businesses like Abonmarche, a civil engineering, architectural and surveying firm, often deal with regulations like the Americans with Disabilities Act, environmental permitting often comes up with engineering firms like Merritt and Wightman.

When civil engineers are working on a project that raises issues concerning wetland or other waterways, the MDEQ come into play.

Years ago, MDOT announced an intention to build a connection between U.S.-31 and I-94. However, a route change was put into consideration because it would affect the habitat of Mitchell’s satyr, an endangered butterfly.

Some rare alkaline wetlands, referred to as fens, are found in the vicinity of Blue Creek and Yellow Creek. The butterfly was discovered in the Blue Creek area in 1991, directly in the path of the freeway.

Following the original alignment of the highway connection would present engineering challenges, requiring long bridges over the two creeks and a system to prevent road salt from getting into the water.

To get federal clearance to build the original alignment, MDOT initially agreed to build expensive “pierless” bridges to cross the wetland area, and to develop the runoff collection system. The project has since seen various changes and still has yet to be seen with an endangered species and a few regulations standing in the way.

Carlisle said Wightman has had its run-ins with protected animals that altered projects.

The northern long-eared bat was added to the list of endangered species in April 2015. Because this bat was designated for the infamous list, it limited Wightman’s construction season on taking trees down from March 31 to Oct. 1.

“Obviously, this regulation is important to protect the bat’s habitat and it requires more planning to utilize federal funds for our road projects,” Carlisle said. “Those don’t happen often, but when it does, it’s immediate.”

Permitting for wetlands and other environmental factors can cause delays, but Carlisle understands the purpose of regulations.

“Yes, there’s more information required. But that’s a good thing,” Carlisle said. “This forces businesses to look at more things, but it does change how we approach things.”

Andrews also said he believes regulations serve the common good. He just wishes it didn’t come at a price.

“I do think they perform a useful function in protecting the environment and our community,” he said. “But it does add to the process of a project. It adds to the cost to our clients and to the time of (the project’s) completion. It slows things down because there are more hoops to jump through.”

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 26, 2017)

Mosaic’s moving pieces: Cornerstone Alliance, Mosaic to invest in new downtown homes

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Cornerstone Alliance is at 38 W. Wall St. in downtown Benton Harbor. Mosaic Christian Community Development Association is planning to move into the space, and Cornerstone will move to a new downtown location at 80 W. Main St. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Cornerstone Alliance and Mosaic Christian Community Development Association are planning a big move this year.

The organizations announced their plan Wednesday to move into two locations and redevelop both downtown Benton Harbor properties. Cornerstone Alliance is expected to move to 80 W. Main St. and Mosaic’s base of operations will find a home at 38 W. Wall St.

The building at 38 W. Wall St. has been the home to Cornerstone Alliance and Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce for about 20 years.

The economic development organization and job training nonprofit are expected to invest more than $1 million combined at the two downtown Benton Harbor properties. Rob Cleveland, president of Cornerstone Alliance, said that dollar amount stems from the renovation at both locations and the sale of Cornerstone’s building to Mosaic.

The move for Mosaic is not a far one from its original base of operations at 510 W. Main. The building Mosaic is renting was bought by Whirlpool Corp. a few years ago to make way for more parking for the appliance maker’s recently completed Riverview Campus.

Whirlpool officials gave Mosaic until the end of July 2017 to move out.

Brian Bennett, Mosaic’s president and founder, said the resale store, the Jobs for Life Program and Mosaic’s base of operations will move to the two-story building along Wall Street. The lower level of the building will be used for Mosaic Resale and the upper level will be for Mosaic officials and the Jobs for Life Program.

Bennett said they hope to keep its current location open until July when they have to move. The new location will open by Aug. 1, he said.

“It really has been a whirlwind over the last six weeks,” Bennett said. “I don’t think that any of us anticipated or saw this coming. Once we have keys and can open it, it will feel more real. I really appreciate the effort of all parties involved. I liked how responsive the city and Cornerstone have been because at the end of the day, we’re all doing something on behalf of downtown Benton Harbor.”

How did this happen?

Greg Vaughn, chief operating officer and vice president of Business Development at Cornerstone, said the proposal to move came about six weeks ago.

With Mosaic still in search of a home, Cornerstone Alliance set to work on finding a plausible location. Vaughn said they initially showed Mosaic officials the property on 80 W. Main St. – where Cornerstone ended up agreeing to move to.

When Bennett explained they would need a larger space for what they planned to do, another idea surfaced.

Cornerstone’s main nucleus had been discussing renovating the Wall Street property about six to eight months ago. The problem for Cornerstone was the building was too large and employees were spread out on the first and second floors. With both organizations facing space problems, Vaughn said they agreed to move and offered the larger building on Wall Street to Mosaic.

Bennett and others from the Mosaic organization liked the idea immediately.

The property that Cornerstone Alliance is moving into consists of two storefronts – last occupied by Tabor Hill’s former tasting room and Murfee’s Boutique.

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Rob Cleveland, left, president of Cornerstone Alliance, and Greg Vaughn, chief operating officer and vice president of Business Development, talk Wednesday afternoon about Cornerstone’s future move to a new location in downtown Benton Harbor. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Cleveland said office and conference facilities at the new anchor location along Main Street will still be available for economic development, Women’s Business Center and Small Business Services, the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce, SCORE and the Renaissance Development Fund.

Vaughn said that before everything is moved in, the facades in front and on the alley side of the existing building will be renovated, along with added parking in the back.

“This is an idea to act as a catalyst for redevelopment along Main Street,” Vaughn said Wednesday. “We thought it was best to reinsert ourselves on Main Street. We got a lot of encouragement from businesses in the arts district. Even the mayor is wanting to see some activity and feels strongly that our presence will drive that resurgence.”

While the move is still in its infancy, Vaughn said the building’s renovation will be completed in late summer or early fall.

Mosaic will move into its future location before Cornerstone’s renovation its completed. Because of this, Cornerstone will temporarily be housed across the street in an office-ready Wall Street property.

Mosaic on Main

Cafe Mosaic is already expected to take over the building at 325 Main St. in Benton Harbor, which most recently was inhabited by King Kong XPress. The cafe is unique because as part of the larger nonprofit company, its main mission is to provide jobs to people in need for training.

Mosaic Resale Store was proposed to be moved to Benton Harbor’s former Carl L. Brown Business Growth Center on Paw Paw Avenue.

However, the sale hit a snag when city commissioners voted unanimously to oppose the sale of the city-owned building. At the time, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said the building couldn’t be sold without the approval of the federal government because the U.S. Department of Commerce gave the city $800,000 to build the building.

Mosaic, which has been in existence since 2009, found an alternative with Cornerstone.

“When Cornerstone approached us, it fit our timeline for when we needed to move,” Bennett said. “It presents a lot of opportunities for growth.”

Muhammad was also pleased with Mosaic and Cornerstone’s plans.

“The residents of the city of Benton Harbor all have the opportunity to benefit from a move of this magnitude,” Muhammad said in a news release. “Cornerstone Alliance and Mosaic provide resources that allow our residents to have access to better jobs, to more skills that employers look for and to start a business of their own.”

The “Mosaic On the Move” capital campaign began in October as Mosaic pursued a permanent location for its operations in Benton Harbor.

The campaign’s goal remains at $850,000, as Bennett said the organization has raised $550,000 so far.

He said the campaign will continue into 2017, while having a physical address will help put them over the top.

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 16, 2017)