More than shovels and headstones: How Lincoln Township found its long-serving cemetarian

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Kevin Gebhard stands near a columbarium in Hickory Bluff Cemetery on Wednesday. Gebhard has been tending to Lincoln Townships cemeteries for 37 years. (Tony Wittkowski / HP staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — Kevin Gebhard really digs his job.

Through the last 37 years, he’s become well accustomed to the Lincoln Charter Township Cemetery and Hickory Bluff Cemetery – which are a combined 25 acres – as the township’s cemetarian.

His responsibilities as public works director stretch beyond maintaining the two cemeteries, but the headstones keep him busy year round.

At 21 years old, Gebhard found himself between jobs when he was roped into digging his first grave.

“I was walking down St. Joe Avenue when a guy I knew from school, who was out working in the cemetery, called me over and asked ‘you wanna help me dig a grave?’” Gebhard recalled.

Work at both cemeteries can be cyclical, but Gebhard said he gets a lot of help during the summer when it comes to mowing and pulling weeds.

“By the time you’re done weeding the last row at one cemetery, it’s time to start to doing that at the other one because everything’s grown back by then,” he said with a laugh. “This is done all by hand since you can’t get around some of the headstones with a mower.”

In his early years, Gebhard said the township had a sexton whose only job was to dig graves. Going back three decades, the township only had two mowers and no maintenance building.

When it comes to digging graves, Gebhard guesses they average about 50 a year. At this rate over the course of his time with the township, Gebhard has dug nearly 2,000 graves.

But Gebhard said the township can go as long as two weeks without breaking ground before there’s a string of funerals that seem to come all at once.

Each grave is 3.5 feet wide and about 56 inches deep. The depth is equivalent to shoulder length for most people standing up.

“Digging someone’s grave six feet deep is a myth,” Gebhard said.

With one foot in

About five years ago, the township added granite columbarium units to its cemeteries at Gebhard’s request. A columbarium is a structure – either indoors or outside – that has niches for funeral urns to be stored.

They’ve grown in popularity since the township installed its first one, and Gebhard can see why.

“They pay for themselves. They are a good investment and it saves space in the cemetery,” he said. “Everybody is going that way. You get so many preferences out there when it comes to death. Some people do not want to go in the ground.”

In addition to the columbarium, Gebhard installed a “scatter garden” at Hickory Bluff Cemetery. The garden is an area for mourners to throw their loved one’s ashes into nature. Nearby the scatter garden is a wall with engraved names of those whose ashes have been spread in the native scenery.

For funeral proceedings, Gebhard said they usually stay back from the crowd. Watching people stand still in silence, saying goodbye to family and friends tends to be a difficult thing to watch.

Afterward, Gebhard and his crew breaks everything down and covers the casket.

Although some funeral homes prefer to handle some of these tasks.

“There are times when people like to stick around and watch the top go on,” Gebhard said. “Some like to throw a shovel-full of dirt (over the casket). Then they leave and we pull our cribbing boards out and fill it with dirt.”

Winter times can be tough because the ground is still frozen. However, Lincoln Township buries all year long.

Using a steel blade on an edger, crew members peel back the tough top layer of sod before digging farther down. Gebhard said he remembers how they used to dig graves by hand when he started – especially in the older part of the township’s first cemetery where it was hard to maneuver a tractor.

“I just like it when everything is green and growing well and there are no complaints,” he said. “Making everybody happy is hard to do, but it’s what drives you. I take a lot of pride in that.”

The hardest part of the job is digging graves meant for children.

“We’ve buried too many kids out here,” Gebhard said Wednesday while on site at Hickory Bluff. “It’s hard to see so many of your friends out here, too.”

On watch for thievery

Not everything that comes with Gebhard’s job is morbid.

One of the funnier memories he has at the cemetery came during the first year on the job. One day while walking through an old section of the cemetery, he fell through a grave.

“It was an old sectional vault and I went through the casket and was standing on the bottom (of the grave),” Gebhard said, shaking his head. “I was pretty new back then. My eyes were real big while I climbed out of there.”

Another memorable moment was when Gebhard was working at Hickory Bluff a few years back. There were several reports of stolen items from graves at various cemeteries in Southwest Michigan.

“I was down there working and I see this van coming around. A lady jumps out and grabs something really quick,” Gebhard said. “She went around the corner and did the same thing. This happened a few more times, so I went to the truck.”

Gebhard grabbed his radio from inside the maintenance truck and reached out to police.

By that point, she was gone and heading down Glenlord Road. Police cars went chasing after her but lost the van. About two minutes later, Gebhard’s old supervisor called him because he had been listening to all the commotion over the radio.

He radioed Gebhard and asked him to describe the van for him. As it turned out, the van was in front him on M-139.

“The cops followed her to her house,” Gebhard said. “Her whole yard was nothing but stolen cast-iron pots, flowers, decorations – the whole nine yards. That was fun prosecuting her.”

Ten years after the incident, Gebhard thought he saw the same thing happen when another woman got out of her vehicle and began grabbing a few shepherd hooks near graves that are used to support flowers.

Doing his due diligence, Gebhard called the police. The hooks turned out to belong to her family.

“I felt so low, but it looked exactly like the first time,” Gebhard said. “She was upset and we straightened it out. That was terrible. I learned a lesson there.”

A final headstone

Clerk Stacy Loar-Porter met Gebhard when she became clerk 16 years ago.

Oddly enough, Loar-Porter said her husband’s family has known Gebhard since they were kids where the two would go camping together. Born in Dowagiac, Gebhard’s family moved to the Stevensville area when he was in kindergarten.

“I think it’s amazing that he started here by mowing lawns and has worked his way up to where he is now,” Loar-Porter said. “We get lots of compliments from residents about him.”

He’s a member of the Michigan Association of Municipal Cemeteries and has been on its Board of Directors from time to time.

In 2015, he was named Cemetarian of the Year. The award is based on a person’s longevity in the field as well as their dedication to the craft.

Loar-Porter said other cemeteries in the state nominated him for his knowledge of the profession.

“Whenever they called him with questions about something, he would always know the answer,” Loar-Porter said. “He helps us with a lot of history. People who go to our cemeteries on a regular basis to check on their families know him by his first name.”

There’s a lot of love and history that comes with cemeteries, Loar-Porter said. And she believes Gebhard is the reason the township has some of the best cemeteries in Southwest Michigan.

“When Kevin decides to leave I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said. “I’ve told him not to even think about it. He’s a big asset to the township.”

As for when he eventually kicks the bucket, Gebhard already knows what he wants on his headstone.

“Mine will read, ‘I told you I was sick,’” he said without pausing. “I thought my wife would get a kick out of that.”

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 April 7, 2017)

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Combating the silent killer: Firefighters discuss carbon monoxide detectors, regulations

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Children swim Tuesday in the pool at the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph YMCA. Along the walls are various lights, cameras and carbon monoxide detectors. (Tony Wittkowski / HP staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

As children swam laps in the pool Tuesday in the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph YMCA, there is safety fixture fastened to the aquatic room’s northern wall.

Between a flat-screen television in the corner and a surveillance camera toward the middle of the wall, is a carbon monoxide detector.

With the recent carbon monoxide poisoning incident in mind, the Niles Fire Department is hoping residents and business owners will take an extra precaution in keeping everyone safe – like at both YMCAs in Berrien County.

The precaution, in most cases, costs $20.

Police and firefighters across Southwest Michigan universally agree on not only providing smoke detectors, but carbon monoxide detectors in homes and specific businesses.

“In the city of Niles, smoke detectors are required,” Niles Fire Department Capt. Don Wise said in a phone interview. “The code states a working detector must be in each bedroom and on each level (of the home). The same cannot be said for carbon monoxide detectors.”

On Saturday, a ventilation problem with the heater that keeps the Niles Quality Inn and Suites’ pool warm caused a carbon monoxide leak that sent a dozen people to the hospital and killed 13-year-old Bryan Watts.

In Niles, the fire department regularly inspects potential fire hazards, but not mechanical problems like what caused the pool’s heater to leak CO into the enclosed room.

The state building code requires structures that were built after 2009 to install carbon monoxide detectors near fuel-burning devices like furnaces, water heaters and other equipment that could malfunction and emit the deadly gas. Unfortunately, the building code doesn’t include structures built before 2009.

Spotting the signs

By definition, carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas.

This silent killer exhibits symptoms like that of the flu. Wise said sometimes the only way to know the difference is to have a CO detector on hand.

“I think anyone with fuel-burning equipment should have a CO detector,” Wise said. “A furnace’s heat exchanger could get a crack in it and dump CO into a home or business. Whenever we have a tragedy like this, the only thing worse is having it happen again when a $20 detector would prevent that.”

Watervliet Fire Chief Dan Jones said there’s a threshold that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has for certain businesses like car repair shops or underground parking garages.

The concentration of carbon monoxide is measured in parts per million. The baseline threshold for a minimum exposure is at 35 parts per million, Jones said.

Any more exposure leads to more severe effects. At 200 parts per million, the subject gets a slight headache and nausea after two hours.

After 800 parts per million, a convulsion will occur within 45 minutes, unconsciousness or death comes in two to three hours. At 1,600 parts per million, Jones said death will come within an hour.

“Obviously, you don’t want any CO whatsoever. The readings you want in your home or business is zero,” Jones said. “Just like with smoke detectors, we encourage people to use CO detectors. We encourage them because CO detectors are not required in the ordinance.”

Being prepared

Jen Hobson, director of administration for the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph YMCA, said after the renovation to its building on Hollywood Road, they added more than 30 smoke detectors that also detect carbon monoxide.

In addition to the one in the pool area, Hobson said there are also ones in the basement and near the child care facilities.

“We have them throughout the building,” she said. “They follow the same protocol at the Niles Y. We also hold by-yearly battery checks and have regular inspections for licensing protocol.”

But what happens when residents are unsure whether a business has a CO detector?

“We’ve had some people ask about going to hotels and knowing if they have a detector,” Wise said. “Sometimes we have to take care of ourselves. A battery-operated detector is the best option. You can plug it in when you get there.”

This is the practice Wise follows when he stays at any hotel or goes camping and uses propane.

“I have CO detectors in my home and at work. I know I have one in my house for natural gas as well,” Wise said. When asked if he sees as many of these CO detectors in public, the answer is not as simple. “I probably see more homes that don’t have them. We have a free smoke detector program for owner-occupied homes, but we don’t offer CO detectors. People have to buy them on their own.”

Jones said there are certain commercial buildings in Watervliet they inspect on an annual basis. This includes the Surfari Joe’s Indoor Wilderness Waterpark at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Watervliet.

He said hotels and motels are the type of commercial buildings that should have CO detectors because it is where people would sleep or spend the night.

However, his rule of thumb doesn’t apply to restaurants.

“It doesn’t take me three hours to eat,” he said. “Having a CO detector takes the guesswork out of it. It doesn’t take very many breaths of carbon monoxide and you will be debilitated.”

In most cases, CO doesn’t get into a high enough concentration for people not to recognize it, Jones said.

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 April 5, 2017)

Royalton Township approves next year’s budget

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Royalton Township trustees met for an hour Friday morning to set a budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Township Manager Steve Tilly said prior to the start of the township’s fiscal year, which begins April 1, they review the current budget and approve any amendments – as well as the next year’s budget.

“We had to amend a few items from this year’s budget,” Tilly said Friday. “We purchased the piece of property between the water tower and the factory building next door. Other than that, it was a normal budget hearing.”

Township officials amended the budget for its building and grounds department to reflect the purchase of that property. The purchase had put the department over budget.

Tilly said they amended the public safety budget to reflect the purchase of the new fire truck. The board approved the purchase of a 70-foot platform fire truck in February for a total of $822,000.

This year’s budget approved Friday was close to the last one, Tilly said.

“Very little change,” he said. “We anticipate revenues will be up a little. We foresee more building and electrical permits. We also switched banks and it appears we’ll have a lower interest rate.”

Royalton used to be with Fifth Third Bank, but made its switch to Chemical Bank.

Tilly said they are also going to take into account a matching portion for any potential park grant they’ll apply for.

“We plugged some money in, but it’s likely we would get a grant over the course of the next three budgeted years,” Tilly said.

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 April 1, 2017)

Time’s up for 5 O’Clock: Restaurant to be demolished in favor of ‘car care center’

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — After sitting dormant for nearly two years, the 5 O’Clock Sports Bar & Restaurant has a new owner.

And no, it isn’t Olive Garden.

Haji Tehrani, CEO and president of Drive and Shine, bought the property at 5000 Red Arrow Highway in February with the intention of opening a car wash in Stevensville.

“We are in the car care business,” Tehran said in a Thursday phone interview. “We offer oil changes, car washes and detailing. In car washing, we do it in full service. I prefer to think of it as a ‘car care center.’”

Tehrani owns six other car wash stations throughout Indiana, including ones in Lake, Elkhart and St. Joseph counties.

This will be the company’s first venture in the Michigan market. Tehrani, whose car wash operations serve the northern half of Indiana, said they have also considered locations in southern Indiana.

“The property was attractive to us,” Tehrani said when asked about the former sports bar. “We don’t have a target date for construction. We have quite a bit of holdings in real estate, but with this being right off I-94 and across from Meijer, it seemed like a no-brainer.”

Tehrani said he and his company drove by the property several times before reaching out to its seller.

Drive and Shine had actually shown interest in another Southwest Michigan location a couple years ago. However, like a lot of business dealings, Tehrani said that fell through.

“The building will go down,” Tehrani said in reference to 5 O’Clock. “In its current condition, that would serve us no purpose. It would be more cost effective to start from scratch. We’ve already had one bid on what it will take.”

Saying goodbye

Michael Wittlieff, the former general manager of the sports bar, has made no secret of his aspirations for selling the business and having a third party renovate the place to its former glory.

Now that a car wash will open in place of the sports bar, the chances of a restaurant opening along that corridor property are slim to none.

“It’s like owning a boat. You love it the day you buy it, and you’re happy the day you sell it,” Wittlieff said. “We had a lot of great times in there. I’m excited for myself and our family to take our own adventures.”

In mid December, Wittlieff and others placed everything in the building on the auction block in an online liquidation sale through Biddergy.com.

When the sports bar closed in May 2015, Wittlieff said there was a potential buyer out of Chicago in the works. However, the deal ended up falling through.

“We tried to hold off as long as possible. However, both my parents passed away within the last six moths and life hit us all,” Wittlieff said. “It is what it is and we took the offer from Haji. I’m excited to see what it will become.”

While many in the community spoke of the possibility of an Olive Garden setting up shop on the corridor, Wittlieff has repeatedly said those rumors were untrue.

The restaurant, formerly known as Win Schuler’s, was closed by the Schuler family before opening again in January 2006 as 5 O’Clock.

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 31, 2017)

From Disney World with love: Whirlpool group raises money for charities, in its own way

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By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Jasper Huff smiled when he was brought into a room where everyone was wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

The 3-year-old and his family were taken to the upstairs cafeteria at Whirlpool Corp.’s Riverview Campus on Thursday, where he was treated to a send-off party courtesy of the home appliance maker and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The cafeteria was transformed into a “glimpse of Disney” for a reason. Jasper had brain cancer and was 10 months into remission. He and his family were heading to Disney World where Jasper would meet Mickey Mouse.

However, the reason Jasper’s send-off party was at Whirlpool’s Riverview Campus was because of an employee group that had raised money to fund the boy’s wish.

The group is known as WhEAT, or the Whirlpool Employee Activities Team.

WhEAT isn’t an employee resource group, so it isn’t found on the appliance maker’s website next to ERG’s like PRIDE or the Veterans’ Network. However, it still does work within the community.

How WhEAT began

It started with Whirlpool’s senior management looking for an opportunity for employees to group together to enhance engagement and come up with ideas for local charities.

Lisa Kiewel, a shared services operations manager at Whirlpool, said the group formed in 2008 – not too long after she joined the Benton Harbor-based company.

It’s grown considerably since its inception.

In its first year, Kiewel said the group of employees raised $2,000. Last year, about $15,000 was collected and donated to local charities. They do so by holding events like bake sales and can drives year-round.

Ashley Stickney, a shared services specialist senior at Whirlpool, said the group’s purpose involves engagement for the WhEAT team and includes the quarterly charity fundraisers.

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Jasper Huff, 3, pins a ribbon on a Mickey Mouse replica during a send-off party Thursday afternoon. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

“When I first started there weren’t positions because it’s just employee-run,” Stickney said. “Management doesn’t come in and run the meetings. We decided what positions there would be in the organization and that structure has led to more funding for charities.”

There are normally 80 to 90 people who make up the group, which fluctuates yearly. About 16 people handle the planning and organizational aspects.

Stickney said the organizations they choose to work with come organically. Other than the Make-A-Wish Foundation, WhEAT has collaborated with the Humane Society, Lory’s Place and Harbor House.

“A lot of times it’s something that somebody has a personal connection with in the group,” Stickney said. “Make-A-Wish was chosen because one of our team members had a child whose wish was granted to them.”

The charities and goals for the employee group have grown substantially from the beginning.

Kiewel said they would do small things within the office when the group began in 2008. But now it’s gotten to the point where they hold their own version of “The Amazing Race” that sends employees to different businesses in the Twin Cities.

Meeting Mickey

The Make-A-Wish fundraising effort came about through the help of a week-long effort and donated goods from local vendors.

From Doughnut Mondays to Waffle Wednesdays, Kiewel said WhEAT eventually raised enough to have the local foundation match it and grant a full wish to Jasper.

Jasper’s family was put in touch with the foundation through a cancer clinic, who was then selected for the matched amount.

Dana Cooper-Hayes, a volunteer wish granter with Make-A-Wish, said the Whirlpool group set the bar with its send-off party Thursday.

“When we interview a child, we ask them everything they like,” Cooper-Hayes said. “We showed Jasper videos in ways of finding what lights him up. At one point he went up and hugged a Mickey Mouse balloon. With that in mind, Whirlpool did a great job with the party.”

Now the Huffs, a family from Benton Harbor, will leave for Disney World on April 5 for six days. While in Florida, they plan on visiting Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios.

Amid the laughing children and pizza party, Jessica Huff, Jasper’s mother, said she was thankful for her son’s opportunity to see “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

“It means a lot after all he’s been through,” Huff said. “We had a couple close calls where we didn’t think he would survive the night. We know the reality of this cancer and appreciate everything that everyone has done.”

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 31, 2017)

Analyzing the Benton Harbor school district’s partnership agreement

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Superintendent Dr. Shelly Walker speaks during a Benton Harbor schools’ partnership agreement meeting Wednesday at Lake Michigan College’s Mendel Center. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — For more than three hours, Benton Harbor Area School officials spoke, asked questions, and took suggestions from area businesses about a proposed partnership agreement designed to save the district.

Benton Harbor Superintendent Shelly Walker led the discussion in a conference room inside the Mendel Center, while community and business representatives, page by page, read through the first draft of the agreement Wednesday.

Walker told attendees the agreement was the district’s way of gaining financial support from the community and area businesses. She said the district hopes partners would serve all five schools in the district, and not just the three schools being targeted by the state.

With several documents produced at the meeting, about nine businesses and organizations were listed as partners.

After the meeting, Walker said there were more partners that showed interest last week. However, due to the quick turnaround from last week’s meeting, Walker said they didn’t have enough time to respond.

“The more you can collaborate and work with others, the better outcomes you will always get,” Walker said. “I anticipate there is going to be more businesses to partner with. But for now, I’m hoping people will have time to digest everything.”

This was the second partnership agreement meeting, which took place a week from the first one.

Last Thursday, representatives from the state’s School Reform Office said the school district needed to enter into a partnership with the Michigan Department of Education by April 30. Otherwise, the Dream Academy would be closed and a CEO would be appointed to take charge of International Academy at Hull and STEAM at MLK after the school year ends.

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Benton Harbor School Board president Joseph Taylor joins members of the communities as well as local officials during a Benton Harbor schools’ partnership agreement meeting Wednesday at Lake Michigan College’s Mendel Center. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

The partnership agreement was handed out to attendees, a section at a time, to look over for inspection. Each person in attendance was given a lunch to eat and openly discussed the benchmarks and goals laid out for potential partners – including the superintendent and Board of Education – that would need to be accomplished in 18- and 36-month intervals.

These goals and benchmarks were created based on what businesses said they would be willing to do, following last week’s meeting.

By using a statistical approach to project where the district’s students should be within the next 18 and 36 months, various goals for the three schools in questions were laid out in reference to proficiency and growth.

“I am not happy with 30 percent proficiency, but statistically speaking, this is where we need to be,” Walker said.

Michigan Department of Education Superintendent Brian Whiston said as everyone goes through the process, the state and the district is going to learn what works and what doesn’t.

“They (BHAS administration) are doing things we would do with this partnership agreement,” Whiston assured the meeting’s attendees. “I don’t ever want the state to take over the district. That would not be in the students’ best interest.”

A new perspective

With a change of venue, there also seemed to be a change in tone among attendees.

After the meeting, BHAS Board President Joseph Taylor said he thought the second round of talks was more effective than what transpired last Thursday.

“I think this time around, Superintendent Whiston put the guns down and we all came out with a new perspective,” Taylor said. “He had a changed attitude from last week’s meeting. The agreement was probably 80 percent good and maybe 20 percent bad.”

In reference to this, Taylor said there were certain items the Board of Education did not agree with.

“We had a problem with the superintendent’s goals as well as the board’s (goals),” Taylor said. “They (the state) have overstepped their bounds on some of the items they’ve wanted the board to do. … However, I feel confident the agreement will be signed. We just have a couple line items we have to work on to make it feasible for all concerns.

“The bottom line for this agreement, is student achievement.”

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The public reads over a number of district goals during a Benton Harbor schools’ partnership agreement meeting Wednesday at Lake Michigan College’s Mendel Center. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

All interested partners will next meet with school officials at 10 a.m. April 25 in a yet-to-be-chosen location. Walker told attendees they had until April 7 to send anymore suggestions to the district before a final draft is created.

Walker said what’s driving the early deadline for the agreement to be signed is the school millage that will be voted on during a May 2 special election.

By having a partnership agreement signed and in place, Walker said she hopes voters will feel more assured in voting in favor of the millage.

In January, SRO released a list of 38 schools, including three in Benton Harbor, that are on its list to be closed or put under a CEO because they have been in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s Top-To-Bottom list for three consecutive years.

Dream Academy was a charter school until it joined Benton Harbor Area Schools in the fall as the district’s alternative high school.

The other two schools on the list were reconfigured in the fall so all students in kindergarten through second grade attend Hull, and students in third through fifth grades attend STEAM. Before that, both schools taught first through eighth grades.

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 30, 2017)

Lincoln Township amends hotel, motel ordinances

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — Motels will be a thing of the past in Lincoln Township, and hotels gained some additional ground, following a joint meeting between Lincoln Township officials Tuesday night.

With a slew of ordinances to discuss and amend, the township’s Planning Commission and Board of Trustees sat together to talk about hotel and motel restrictions within two districts.

Officials agreed to amend the township’s ordinances to permit hotels in the highway commercial district and allow hotels in the commercial mixed use district as a special use. By allowing the hotels in the commercial district as a special use, any proposed hotel would require a public hearing and comment from residents.

Some trustees and commissioners bristled at the option of not including the special use to the commercial district.

“I don’t want what’s going on at M-139 (in Benton Township) where it’s just one hotel after another,” said Treasurer Terrie Smith. “It wouldn’t look good for the corridor.”

The amended ordinance addressed hotel height, as well.

In the previous ordinance, hotels in the commercial district were capped at 35 feet or two and a half stories. Now, the ordinance allows the hotels in the commercial district a maximum height of 41 feet and no limit on stories. The reason for the height increase and removal of storied measurement was because most hotels are now three or four stories tall.

The maximum height was set at 41 feet, instead of a solid 40, because of extra dirt or gravel that is often laid at the base to ensure a structure is level. Doing so raises the height of a building.

“Sometimes (hotel developers) have to bring in some kind of fill to level the land,” said Mike Freehling, chairman of the Planning Commission. “Usually you don’t put your slab at natural grade for drainage issues. If you’re going from the ground, we gave them that extra foot. Sometimes you lose a few inches in the process.”

Freehling said the idea for the amendments came up after the Fairfield Inn and Suites hotel on Red Arrow Highway was rezoned.

Developers of the Fairfield Inn were able to get the site rezoned to highway commercial due to a question over its elevator. The site was originally zoned commercial mixed use on the portion nearest to Red Arrow, which restricted the structure to two and a half stories.

In addition to the hotel ordinance, township officials agreed to ban future motels from being built within those two districts. Existing motels, such as the Super 8 along Red Arrow, would be grand-fathered into the amended ordinance.

A hotel is often considered to be a building with interior corridors that link to guest rooms, and they typically offer more guest services to customers. A motel does not have these interior corridors.

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign

One of the recurring ordinances that has been discussed among trustees and planning commissioners is in reference to signs.

The discussion led to the pole sign amendment that was recently skirted by a local hotel.

When the pole sign for the Baymont Inn & Suites along Red Arrow Highway fell a couple of years ago, the hotel replaced it with another pole sign after going to the township’s Zoning Board of Appeals. This proved to be a way around the sign ordinance that was created to bring more monument signs – and reduce the tall signs seen along highways – to the commercial and highway districts.

Township attorney Scott Dienes told officials they should discuss the sign ordinance more and see what should be made clearer.

Trustee Marc Florian, who also serves on the Planning Commission, referred to the sign issue as “an elephant that couldn’t be addressed in one night.”

Officials at the joint meeting discussed the ordinance for a bit before creating a committee to lead discussions in amending the ordinance, while taking pictures of signs around town to determine what the township should do.

The next joint meeting, which will center around the sign ordinance, is at 6 p.m. April 19.

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 29, 2017)