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)

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Benton Harbor Parks Conservancy faces uncertain future

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — The Benton Harbor Parks and Recreation Conservancy met for an hour Tuesday and was unable to take any action.

This was because the conservancy was one person shy of a quorum.

The conservancy, which has been without a president since June 2016, met for its annual meeting for all members to elect new officials. But because there weren’t enough members present, the ones who made it to Tuesday’s meeting spent their time discussing how the nonprofit organization should operate in the future.

“If we don’t get members here, we don’t exist,” said John Egelhaaf of the conservancy’s executive committee. Egelhaaf led the board meeting due to the absence of a president and vice president. “That’s the harsh truth.”

The conservancy works as a nonprofit that manages Benton Harbor’s 13 parks.

This was the first time the conservancy had met since Nov. 22. The Jan. 17 meeting was canceled.

In November, members discussed the option of hiring an executive director – something the nonprofit has never had. On Tuesday, there was only talk off attendance and filling committees.

Committees various members volunteered for, which required no action from the conservancy, included the Adopt-A-Park Committee, Parks Management Committee and the Bylaws/Membership Committee.

“We need to recruit members and look into the bylaws on how membership changes,” Egelhaaf said, referring to the Bylaws/Membership Committee. “Finding a quorum is enough of a challenge as it is.”

Darwin Watson, Benton Harbor’s city manager and conservancy member, said they should look at who is still listed as a member and make the appropriate updates.

Among those listed as active members for the conservancy is Kysre Gondrezick, who plays basketball at the University of Michigan.

A few members asked whether they could decrease the number of members in order to ensure there would be a quorum at meetings.

Ironically, due to the nonprofit’s bylaws, the conservancy would need a quorum in order to do so.

Kinexus fallout

Egelhaaf said the conservancy has had a hard time finding an organization for bookkeeping purposes after Kinexus dropped out of doing so toward the end of 2016.

Egelhaaf said Cornerstone Alliance had a sympathetic ear and was able to help out in that capacity.

“We still don’t have the administrative aspect,” Egelhaaf said. “All of the agenda building, minute taking, the meeting prep is not happening. The executive committee is doing its best to fill that void.”

The conservancy still holds its meetings in a conference room inside Kinexus’ building in Benton Harbor.

Brian Saxton, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor and conservancy member, told members the conservancy is at a crossroad as a result.

“Kinexus is gone. They said they no longer wish to provide the administrative support to this organization,” Saxton explained Tuesday. “We lost all of the administrative functions and were given a box from Kinexus, full of files and maybe a CD or two. That’s what we have. There’s no infrastructure. We need to ask ourselves, does this organization have the resources to survive?”

That question, along with who will be voted the conservancy’s president, will likely be up for further discussion at the organization’s next meeting on May 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 March 29, 2017)

The impact of $4.14: Watervliet girl makes an impression at Krasl Art Center

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — About two weeks ago during a school field trip, Aubrey Noe did something very unexpected.

The 10-year-old was visiting the Krasl Art Center with her classmates from Watervliet’s North Elementary School as part of a program to help schoolchildren understand art.

As part of the program, students tour the center, learn about art and make some of their own in the process. There is normally a $2 fee per student.

However, some of the school groups can’t afford the cost of the program or transportation. Julia Gourley, executive director of the Krasl, said the center sometimes provides scholarships to the schools when necessary.

Despite this, Gourley said North Elementary School still invited its students to contribute. That’s when Aubrey, a fourth-grader, submitted her donation.

“We normally get a Ziploc bag of coins and dollar bills,” Gourley said. “We began to unravel all the stuff and here is this handwritten note from this girl.”

In the letter, Aubrey noted she understood there was a $2 donation, but instead gave the art center $4.14.

She not only wrote in cursive, but printed the message to ensure Gourley and her staff could read it.

“I’ve been here for 10 years and I don’t remember a donation coming in that was this sweet and had this much thought put into it,” Gourley said. “She said that ‘you told us we didn’t have to pay anything, so I decided to give more money.’”

The small act of kindness led to a donation effort from others in the community.

Friends of the Krasl Art Center were so inspired by Aubrey’s generosity, they pledged to match her gift of $4.14, launching Aubrey’s Matching Gift Campaign. Gourley said a special donation box was placed in Krasl’s lobby.

As of Monday, the campaign has raised $72.81.

An inspiring gift

Gourley said they next went to visit Aubrey at her school, where they discovered her mother had no idea she had done this.

“I wanted to thank her for her gift, and I wanted her to know her gift inspired others. I was also curious what prompted her to do so,” Gourley said. “When I asked her why she decided to do that, she said she wanted to support the business because she thought it was important that all people look at art.”

Mallory Noe, Aubrey’s mom, received a call from the school’s principal, due to Krasl’s visit.

When Noe was told how inspired the Krasl staff was by her daughter’s donation, she too felt inspired.

“I was kind of surprised. It’s nice to know my little girl can think like that and want to help people,” Noe said. “What I loved the most is that she did it on her own with the last bit of money that she had.”

Noe said she was aware that the school had asked students to bring $2 for the Krasl program, so she gave Aubrey $2 to donate. Unknown to her, Aubrey took an additional $2.14 she had been saving to add to the recommended donation.

The mother and daughter are both artistically inclined. Noe enjoys painting and Aubrey is no stranger to doodling.

On April 2, Noe said they are going back to the art center for Family Day.

“She loves art, likes to doodle and sketch. She just wanted other kids to enjoy the art as well,” Noe said of Aubrey. “She’s always had a big heart, she’s such a sweet girl. I hope she continues to do this the rest of her life and inspire others to do the same.”

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 28, 2017)

The health of a lake: Volunteer transitions from oil to environmental work

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Dick Morey is president of the Michigan Lake and Stream Association. He is standing along Magician Lake in Sister Lakes. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

Dick Morey’s second career is combating invasive species.

As president of Michigan Lake and Stream Association, Morey helps test water for invasive species and pollutants that have adverse effects on a lake’s ecosystem.

Morey grew up in Niles, but now calls Sister Lakes his home in retirement. Morey has put a lot of time into Magician Lake, a 540-acre lake.

Next month, the Michigan Lake and Stream Association will have its 56th annual conference called “Bridging the Resource Gaps: Enhancing the Ability of Lakefront Communities to Prevent and Manage Aquatic Invasive Species.”

Morey has been spreading the word of the event and is looking for more volunteers to get involved with the organization. The conference is April 21 and 22 at the Crystal Mountain Resort in Thompsonville, Mich.

Herald-Palladium staff writer Tony Wittkowski sat down with Morey to discuss how he got involved with the environmental association and what keeps him interested in clean lakes.

What did you used to do for a living?

I worked for Amoco Oil Company for 30 years.

What did you do after graduating from Niles High School? Where did you go next?

I went to Michigan State University. After graduation I joined Amoco Oil. At that time it was Standard Oil. Then it became Amoco, and after I retired it became BP.

Wow. So you’re telling me you stuck with the same company that entire time?

Yup. People don’t normally do that. All my buddies that I’ve met along the way have been with Amoco from college until retirement.

What did you study at MSU?

Marketing.

Hmm, how did you go from marketing to working for an oil company?

Well, when I was hired in to Amoco, I was a salesman. We sold to gas stations, including things like motor oil, tires and batteries and all the accessories that the dealers needed. That was the ground level job.

OK, so after that, you retired and became president of this environmental organization?

I got involved about 15 years ago because most lakes have volunteer people who do water testing. I started testing on our lake and going to conferences. Our association helps lakes and other large bodies of water alleviate invasive species and helping educate the public in doing so.

I was just curious how you got involved with both Amoco and this environmental organization. Most people don’t tend to put them in the same sentence.

I was concerned about our lake (Magician Lake) and keeping it the way it was. The only people that are going to do that are the people who live near it. At that time, I went to a conference like the one that is coming up in April, and found out about what can be done at these lakes.

All the volunteers that do their water testing, all the data and findings goes to Michigan State for analysis. All the lakes are compared and put into one publication.

During these tests, did you ever find anything that was out of the ordinary?

No, not really. It’s been pretty consistent. The reason we’re testing is because there isn’t money budgeted by the state to come out and monitor all these lakes. We look out for any invasive species that get transported into lakes.

Usually, they are brought in by boats that have been in a lake with assorted invasive species that get wrapped around a propeller or something. Then they come into another lake and it starts to spread. Our lake gets those species through its public access. You have to stay on top of it.

Sounds like a lot of work.

It is, but it’s worth it.

After the first year of treating, we went from 100 acres of invasive species in our lake, to just a couple little pods that are no more than 1 to 2 acres in the whole lake.

You said you’ve been doing this for 15 years now. How much longer do you see yourself doing this for?

As long as I stay healthy. I’ve got a couple younger retirees that help me if I need it. They can always take over.

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 27, 2017)

Southwest Michigan housing sales slip in February

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Southwest Michigan’s housing market kept up its record pace in January, but February failed to set any records in the year-over-year comparison for sales, total dollar volume and selling prices.

Despite this, George Lucas, board president of the Southwestern Michigan Association of Realtors, said January sales prices managed to keep year-to-date numbers up from 2016.

Comparing February results to January, the number of houses sold dropped 8 percent. With fewer homes sold and closed, the total dollar volume in February fell 28 percent.

“Homebuyers in February found average and median selling prices that were significantly lower than in January,” Lucas said. “The average selling price decreased 22 percent and the median selling price declined 20 percent.”

The number of houses sold in February 2017 slipped 4 percent from February 2016. Year-to-date, the number of houses in Southwest Michigan sold was up by nine houses in February 2017 for a 2 percent increase over February 2016.

At the end of February, the average time a home was on the market before it sold was 116 days – compared to 131 days in February 2016.

This was an 11 percent decrease from a year ago.

The total dollar volume for February was up slightly at 2 percent; rising from $30.4 million in 2016 to $31.1 million in February 2017.

Year-to-date, the total dollar volume was up 10 percent thanks to January’s robust start. The year-to-date, total dollar volume in February set the record in the year-over-year comparison back to 2006.

The average selling price in February 2017 increased 6 percent from February 2016. The year-to-date, average selling price was up 7 percent.

The median selling price of $114,000 in February 2017 was up 4 percent over the $109,950 set in February 2016. Year-to-date, the median selling price jumped 11 percent to $130,000 from $117,500 in 2016.

Comparing 2006 to 2017, the year-to-date average and median selling prices were the highest recorded over time in this region.

“The active listing of homes for sale fell 19 percent at the end of February 2017 with 1,512 homes for sale compared to 1,868 homes for sale in February 2016,” Lucas said. “This declining inventory gave the market just a 5.1-month supply of houses for home buyers to select from, compared to a 6.7-month supply a year ago and 13.9 months of inventory in 2010.”

Locally, the mortgage rate declined slightly to 4.31 from 4.32 percent in January. Last year in February, the rate was at 3.76. Nationally, the Freddie Mac mortgage rate in February was 4.16 percent compared to 4.19 percent in January for a 30-year conventional mortgage.

Across the nation

According to the National Association of Realtors, existing home sales slid in February but remained above last year’s levels – both nationally and in all major regions.

Total existing-home sales retreated 3.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.48 million in February from 5.69 million in January. Despite last month’s decline, February’s sales pace is still 5.4 percent above a year ago.

NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said closings fell in February with too little property for sale and weakening affordability stifling buyers in most of the country.

“Realtors are reporting stronger foot traffic from a year ago, but low supply in the affordable price range continues to be the pest that’s pushing up price growth and pressuring the budgets of prospective buyers,” he said. “Newly listed properties are being snatched up quickly so far this year and leaving behind minimal choices for buyers trying to reach the market.”

The median existing-home price for all housing types in February was $228,400, up 7.7 percent from February 2016. February’s price increase was the fastest since last January and marks the 60th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Midwest sales fell 7 percent to an annual rate of 1.2 million in February, but are still 2.6 percent above a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $171,700, up 6.1 percent from a year ago.

First-time buyers were 32 percent of sales in February, which is down from 33 percent in January and up from 30 percent a year ago.

“The affordability constraints holding back renters from buying is a signal to many investors that rental demand will remain solid for the foreseeable future,” Yun said. “Investors are still making up an above average share of the market right now despite steadily rising home prices and few distressed properties on the market.”

Nationally, the total housing inventory at the end of February increased 4.2 percent to 1.75 million existing homes available for sale, but is still 6.4 percent lower than a year ago and has fallen year-over-year for 21 straight months.

Unsold inventory is at a 3.8-month supply at the current sales pace.

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)

Panera Bread to offer delivery by 2018

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Panera Bread announced a plan to introduce delivery services to all its locations within the next year.

The sandwich shop and bakery chain says it plans to offer “high-quality and healthy dishes” off its entire menu in every store by 2018.

It was tested in a select few markets, including a few in western Michigan. The Panera Bread in St. Joseph Township wasn’t a test market, but is expected to be included in the service.

“We’ve found this has been a great success,” Dan Wegiel, senior vice president of Panera to You, said in a news release. “Across our various markets, we’ve seen the demand for convenient and quality service grow, so we’re committed to this.”

Other initial testing markets for the delivery services were Louisville, Ky., and Charlotte, N.C. By the time delivery service got to Michigan in May of last year, Wegiel said the company was confident enough with success in delivery service to begin planning a rollout phase.

By the end of 2016, Panera had delivery at 15 percent of its chain, or about 300 restaurants, in multiple markets.

The company plans to hire 10,000 people, mostly drivers, as part of the expanded service.

Wegiel said Panera expects to see a 10 percent increase in the volume of work as a result of adding delivery service.

Panera delivery orders will come with a $5 order minimum and $3 delivery service fee. Orders can be placed online or through the company’s app.

In recent years, Panera added the ability to order by iPads inside restaurants as part of its Panera 2.0 technology initiative.

Panera Bread is a bakery/cafe that specializes in fresh-made sandwiches, soup served in bread bowls, fresh salads, pastries and hot and iced coffee drinks.

Construction began in the fall of 2005 on the strip mall at the corner of Niles and Hollywood roads in St. Joseph Township. It was then opened in the spring of 2006.

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 24, 2017)

Microbrewery plans a two-phase expansion

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — North Pier Brewing Co. has grown fast since opening last year, enough so to merit an expansion at its Benton Township location.

The microbrewery at 670 North Shore Drive, adjacent to Hole 14 of the Golf Club at Harbor Shores and across the street from the North Shore Inn, was given approval by township trustees Tuesday for a 20,000-square-foot expansion that would be completed in two phases.

The expansion won’t be connected to the microbrewery’s current building, but create a separate facility across the street at the shared parking lot between North Shore Inn and North Pier.

Jay Fettig, owner of North Pier, said the expansion would be dedicated to cold storage, warehousing and bottling beer.

The first phase includes 7,500 square feet in cold storage and warehousing. The second phase will address the remaining 12,500 of the expansion for production, Fettig said.

The separate production building would be geared toward canning.

“We always had aspirations to expand. As things progressed and we figured out what was required, we quickly realized we needed to ramp up production now,” Fettig said. “We weren’t quite ready for a new brewhouse since we’re only a year old, but we needed some upgrades.”

The microbrewery at 670 North Shore Drive has a somewhat low barrel capacity, Fettig said. The expansion would alleviate the problem.

“We’ve been doing a small expansion in our current space and added new outdoor tanks that hold 45 barrels,” Fettig said. “What this will allow us to do is brew five times as much beer as we were doing. We will also get a canning line in April. With all that in mind and those upgrades going on in our current space, we needed space for everything else.”

Fettig told trustees Tuesday that they would like to begin work on the first phase as soon as possible.

The rest of the mitten

Part of what’s driving this expansion is North Pier’s effort to extend its beer to the rest of the state.

As a microbrewery, North Pier can sell beer in its own tavern or through retailers across Michigan.

Most of the beer made at the microbrewery is for distribution, which is limited to Berrien County and neighboring regions. After the expansion, Fettig said the microbrewery would end up producing enough to distribute to most of Michigan and northern Indiana.

“We would continue to sell about eight to 10 different beers locally,” he said. “Statewide, there would only be two flagship beers that would be distributed because of the amount of work it would take.”

The parking lot, which has 24 spaces, would be upgraded to reduce any traffic congestion along the three-way intersection. The production building Fettig hopes to see built would be directly behind the parking lot.

The land behind it has already been cleared for site preparation.

Fettig said the second phase would be done later on with no specific time frame in mind.

“Ideally, if things go well and we max out our current facility, the plan would be more space,” Fettig said. “A new brewhouse and larger fermenters would be nice. The additional 12,500 of the site plan is our way of planning ahead.”

The microbrewery has three full-time workers and seven part-time employees, but site documents provided to the township show the expansion is expected to eventually add five to 10 people.

North Pier Brewing Co. first opened last summer in time for the 2016 Senior PGA Tournament.

Fettig ended up reusing the building as well as its extension that was built in the 1950s. The building was renovated to accommodate seating and the tap room. The remaining structure, which dates to the mid-1920s, was the old Anderson Patterson Works.

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 23, 2017)