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)

Advance Auto Parts store coming to Benton Township

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — A new business that caters to car owners, plans to plant its flag on the retail hub of Benton Township.

The Township Board on Tuesday approved Advance Auto Parts site plans for a new building and store along M-139. It will replace the vacant Louie’s Bar and encompass the lot behind it.

The site plan for the car part retail company met all township requirements and was recommended for approval by the township’s Planning Commission after its March 13 meeting.

Located at 1740 M-139, the proposed building and parking lot is zoned D1 commercial and will account for 2.1 acres.

Township Clerk Carolyn Phillips said the store’s property will tie into a shared easement to give customers access to M-139 and Napier Avenue.

The site plan calls for 30 parking spots at the auto parts store.

Further discussion

While no representatives from Advance Auto Parts were present for the board meeting, Trustee Linda Scarbrough still had a question.

“Did anyone drive up and down M-139 and the two miles within the (proposed auto parts) store? I noted there are already five auto stores,” Scarbrough said. “How many jobs might be added by Advance that’s going to be taken away from the other ones? I don’t think there’s enough pieces of the pie for everyone.”

Other board members explained that was the nature of business.

Treasurer Debbie Boothby said that stretch of M-139 is considered a commercial district for a reason and that trustees were only there to approve the site plan Tuesday.

“It’s a corporate decision,” Boothby said. “It’s the same thing that goes on with Lowe’s and Home Depot. It’s our commercial district and they are in compliance with everything.”

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)

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)

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)