Trustees approve women’s health center site plans

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — InterCare Community Health Network will have another freestanding medical clinic built alongside its Benton Township location in 2017.

Township trustees approved site plans for a women’s health center during Tuesday’s board meeting, which will be built next to Intercare’s Benton Harbor Health Center at 800 M-139.

Tracy Ezell, senior architect and project manager with Byce & Associates, said the proposed building would be directly north of the existing 800 M-139 clinic. The township assigned an address of 796 M-139 to the future building.

The network received notification this year it was a recipient of a $1 million federal grant from the Affordable Care Act’s Community Health Center Fund. This led to plans for the women’s health clinic.

The 1.5-acre property will make way for a 9,500-square-foot women’s health clinic, which InterCare will use for prenatal care and other services.

Ezell told trustees it was a long-term goal to use the land north of the clinic.

“Shortly after the first clinic was built, Lakeland Health transferred most of their women’s health care for prenatal care to the InterCare organization,” Ezell said Tuesday. “Those services are currently housed in the original clinic, which was built for overall general health care. That function will be removed from the original InterCare facility and moved next door.”

The proposed health center would be next to the original InterCare clinic, but would not be physically connected.

According to meeting minutes from the township’s planning commission, InterCare officials anticipate moving most of the staff from the existing clinic to the new building. A few additional employees may be needed.

The revised site plan shows 45 new parking spaces with some of the overflow parking to be provided by the InterCare clinic to the south.

“It’s going to be a shared entry drive,” Ezell said. “When the original project was completed, this drive was planned to service any future project. There are provisions for overflow parking, which would be handled by the main site. It’s a campus plan of sorts.”

A number of patients will be using public transportation, also reducing the need for additional spaces. The site proposes to provide an area for stormwater management – the northeast part of the parcel – under Berrien County Drain Commission review and permits.

Ezell said the extra space in the existing clinic, which was built in 2011, will allow them to systematically renovate space as needed of the new model of health care and plan for growth at the main clinic.

“I’d like to thank you for your proactive runoff plans that you have and integrated into your parking areas,” said Treasurer Debbie Boothby at Tuesday’s meeting. “That has been noticed and mentioned throughout the community.”

InterCare Community Health Network announced plans in 2009 to move its Benton Harbor clinics from the former Mercy Center to a consolidated clinic to be built a few blocks away at the corner of M-139 and Empire Avenue.

InterCare’s West Michigan network, based Bangor, serves more than 50,000 low-income patients each year.

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 Dec. 23, 2016)

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Benton Township police secure body cameras

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — After nearly a year and a half of research and price comparisons, the Benton Township police will get body cameras for on-duty officers.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Police Chief Vince Fetke explained to trustees how the body cameras would work and the process that went into picking them.

Fetke said they chose the cameras because of how departments that have already gone through a body camera program have found an overall reduction in use-of-force complaints, citizen complaints for police/citizen interactions and an enhanced relationship between the police and communities.

Trustees approved the purchase of 20 Laser Technology Axon 2 body cameras for more than $16,800. However, about $13,500 will be covered through a Edward Byrne Grant that the township received in 2015.

Also listed on the quoted sheet for the equipment is an annual charge of about $5,500 over the course of the next five years for licensing.

The remaining balance will be paid for from the police department budget.

“I think that we all know the importance of this technology, especially in recent months, not only nationally, but locally, in recording critical events that occur with law enforcement,” Fetke said. “When we submitted for this grant, we were looking at a lot of first-generation body cameras that lacked some of the things we were looking for our department.”

Recently, TASER International came out with its latest generation of body camera.

Not only is the latest generation out, but it is a programmable body camera. Fetke said the idea is to reduce any long-term costs in having to replace them with new technology. Each uniformed officer for the township will be issued their own body camera, Fetke said.

“Like our existing in-car camera system, any time an officer has contact with a citizen it shall be activated,” Fetke said. “The officer will turn it on prior to getting out of his vehicle. However, it does have pre-event recording capabilities.”

Pre-event recording allows the body camera to begin recording anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes before the officer hits record.

Fetke said this comes in handy during a situation where an officer is caught off guard in an impromptu event.

When asked by trustees about upgrade possibilities for the cameras, Fetke said because they chose the new generation of body cameras, they will work like a software upgrade. Any new enhancements will be downloaded every month.

When an officer puts the body camera back into its charging dock, the updated software will be downloaded. The body cameras have 12 hours of battery life and 70 hours worth of storage, Fetke said.

The other advantage to the newer generations is the additional software that will be put in police vehicles.

Benton Township already has an in-car system that records activity at the front of a patrol car. Fetke said many police agencies are either going to body cameras, trying to buy them or entertaining the idea.

The Benton Harbor Department of Public Safety bought body cameras through a similar grant last year, and other area departments have looked at the idea. The issue has gained national attention as the conduct of police in some well-publicized cases has come under intense scrutiny.

“In certain situations, such as activating overhead lights or the sirens, it will automatically trigger the camera without the officer having to touch the camera to capture the events,” Fetke said. “If anybody saw the film footage for the Benton Harbor incident, they had a first-generation of this camera and it worked quite well.”

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 Dec. 22, 2016)

Benton Township board OKs next year’s budget

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Benton Township Board members approved several budgetary items to close out the last meeting of 2016.

On Tuesday night, trustees approved next year’s budget, moved for a budget amendment for 2016 and gave themselves and township employees 2 percent raises.

The board recessed from its regular meeting briefly to hold its budget hearing. Superintendent Kelli Nelson presented the proposed budget and went through each fund for trustees and audience members.

In regard to taxable value, Nelson said Benton Township’s value decreased due to the phase out of the personal property tax.

“If we are reimbursed from the state, based on the Essential Services Assessment, we will have constant property tax revenue,” Nelson reassured the board. “If we are reimbursed, as (the state) said we would be come February, our tax revenues will remain constant.”

Nelson said if the township is not reimbursed, the loss would be about 4.5 percent of its tax revenue.

Trustees then approved Nelson’s proposed break-even budget of $2.9 million. The general fund budget included the library contribution, money set aside for unexpected demolitions and drains at large.

Nelson said the township will be fully funding its annual required contribution for retiree health coverage.

One of the last items trustees approved for the 2017 budget was a 2 percent increase in the board’s salary and per diem.

That means Supervisor Kevin White will receive about $28,000 a year, Clerk Carolyn Phillips will get more than $54,000 annually, Treasurer Debbie Boothby will receive nearly $51,000 a year and trustees will now earn $96 per meeting attended.

The budget amendment

Nelson began the meeting by presenting a proposed budget amendment to close out the 2016 balance.

First, there was an amendment to general fund revenue for building licenses and permits.

Revenue from the sale of fixed assets was also amended. This accounted for the sale of the old Holiday Inn hotel to DeNooyer Chevrolet this year.

“We have experienced a significant amount of development within the township and the permit fees have exceeded what was originally budgeted,” Nelson said. “Sometimes we don’t amend the revenue, but with the expenditures we are making, I found it necessary and prudent to do so.”

Among the expenses amended for the 2016 budget included an unexpected payoff of the Rizzo drain project, charges used to update a storm-damaged parks building and an extra transfer to the township’s equipment and replacement fund.

The next board meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 6 at the Township Hall.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 21, 2016)

Together again under one roof: Harbor Habitat holds key ceremony for family

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Thelma Smith, left, shares a moment with her granddaughter, Trisha Hudson, and great-granddaughter, Alexis Barnes, 11, during their Harbor Habitat for Humanity home dedication Saturday in Benton Township. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Thelma Smith looked on at her granddaughter lovingly as more people entered her new house Saturday.

More than two dozen people were welcomed to the Harbor Court residence to celebrate Smith’s new house through a key ceremony.

Smith has raised her 30-year-old, quadriplegic granddaughter Trisha Hudson as her own since she was 6. Then, she helped raise Hudson’s 11-year-old daughter, Alexis Barnes. Hudson and Barnes were there to also welcome newcomers.

The three lived together until Hudson had a massive stroke in 2007 when Barnes was almost 2 years old. Smith said the stroke left her granddaughter only able to move her eyes.

“I don’t know what to say other than, I’m so grateful,” Smith said. “You have no idea how great it is to have my family at home together. One of these days her body’s going to come back and she’s going to be walking. And I want everybody to see that. I didn’t bring her this far to leave her.”

Erin Hudson, executive director for Harbor Habitat for Humanity, said it was nice to see the three of them be in one home for Christmas. The family originally moved into the new home in August.

Workers started rehabilitating the Benton Township structure in September 2015.

Smith applied for a Harbor Habitat home so she could bring her granddaughter back from the nursing home. She said she was determined to get a better living situation for herself and her family.

According to Jessica-Rae McFall, family services manager at Harbor Habitat, when Smith first applied for a home she wasn’t approved.

“She wasn’t going to let that stop her,” McFall told everyone standing in Smith’s living room. “She applied again and knew she had what it took to be a homeowner. Thelma is especially amazing. Before she started her sweat equity, she tripped and fractured her wrist.”

At 70 years old, she completed the 300 hours of sweat equity with Harbor Habitat, where she helped build her home and took classes for homeownership and financial capability. All of this was done by Smith while she traveled to and from South Haven to care for her granddaughter and raise Barnes.

American Electric Power and Whirlpool Corp. representatives were on site Saturday.

The Habitat home was originally built in 2008, sponsored by AEP. The power company had workers come out and work alongside Harbor Habitat volunteers. Whirlpool donated not only the refrigerator and stove top, but a washer and dryer as well.

Smith said she was thankful for the appliances because she had been forced to walk up flights of stairs in their previous apartment to do laundry.

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 Dec. 18, 2016)

Fairplain Plaza gets new owners

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Lormax Stern Development announced Wednesday it completed its purchase of the Fairplain Plaza in Benton Township.

According to a news release sent from the Bloomfield Hills company, Lomax Stern bought the 450,000-square-foot shopping center due to it being “in the heart of Benton Harbor’s trade area.”

The sale was closed Nov. 30, Lomaz Stern officials confirmed in an email. The total cost of the acquisition was not made available.

Fairplain Plaza is at the corner of M-139 and Napier Avenue with businesses that include Dunham’s Sporting Goods, Party City, PetSmart, TJ Maxx, Ulta, Target and Kohl’s.

“Fairplain is perfectly located and really is the cornerstone for this market,” Andrew Luckoff, leasing specialist at Lormax Stern, said in a news release. “We are excited to begin improvements in the plaza. … We’ll introduce fresh, new retail concepts to the greater Benton Harbor community. We plan to build Fairplain up to its full potential.”

Lormax Stern specializes in the redevelopment of shopping centers like Fairplain Plaza, the company stated.

Working closely with the surrounding area residents as well as retailers, Luckoff said, Lormax Stern works to make “long-term success and added value” for the communities they serve.

Richard Kerwin, vice president of acquisition at Lormax Stern, said the property adds to the company’s western Michigan holdings, which also includes Knapp’s Crossings and North Kent Mall in Grand Rapids and Frandor Mall in Lansing.

The closest shopping mall development Lomax Stern has to Southwest Michigan is the Minges Brook Mall in Battle Creek.

“Western Michigan is a strong growth sector for us,” said Kerwin, who led the acquisition with Lormax Stern. “We see such potential here and we’re thrilled to be part of the retail community in this region. We have been eager to get involved in Benton Harbor, and Fairplain Plaza provided the perfect opportunity for us to do so. We have exciting plans for the plaza.”

Lormax Stern has been in the shopping center development business for more than 30 years, and has developed more than 30 million square feet of retail space to date.

The company owns and manages more than 30 retail centers in Michigan, Illinois, Florida, Kentucky and Mississippi.

A history of transactions

Coventry Real Estate Advisors previously owned the plaza.

The New York-based firm bought the 42-acre shopping complex in 2006 from JPA Development – a company run by local business owner Jim Paul.

Paul had bought the plaza in 1997 from the Angelo family, who had established the shopping center in the late 1950s at M-139 and Napier Avenue as the first retail center in what is now the Twin Cities retail hub.

Fairplain Plaza fell into hard times in the 1970s. By the mid-’90s, it was largely vacant with several crumbling buildings.

JPA Development bought the property and began tearing down old structures. Fairplain Drive was built between M-139 and Mall Drive to connect Fairplain Plaza to the Orchards Mall and Pipestone Road shopping district.

Target, which serves as the plaza’s anchor store, opened in 1998, and several chain retailers soon followed.

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 Dec. 8, 2016)

Benton Township renews library agreement with Benton Harbor

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Benton Township residents will have access to the Benton Harbor Public Library for another three years as of Tuesday.

Trustees agreed to a library services agreement at Tuesday’s board meeting, which gives residents full access to the city’s library.

Superintendent Kelli Nelson said the service agreement permits the Berrien County Treasurer and the Library of Michigan to make the respective penal fine payments and state aid payments directly to the Benton Harbor Library Board.

“Since this is a renewal, it doesn’t change anything,” Nelson said. “As part of the agreement we have permitted our penal fines and our state aid to library funding as a way to give residents the continued access to the Benton Harbor library.”

The state regularly sets aside an amount of aid to each municipality that it can put toward a public library. Benton Township’s state aid goes to the Benton Harbor library because the township does not have one itself.

Nelson said the township has had an agreement with the city’s library for more than 20 years.

She she said the majority of the service agreements have been in three-year increments.

“In addition to remitting penal fines, we used to give them a contracted contribution each year,” Nelson said. “But when we had some financial constraints in 2013, we discontinued the contributions. It was part of a six-month termination clause.”

Now the township sets aside a smaller contribution in addition to the penal fines and state aid when the budget allows for it, Nelson said. This year’s contribution will be $25,000.

Because of the service agreement, two township residents from the community are appointed by the Township Board to represent them on the Benton Harbor Library Board.

“Residents receive full library services, like any other Benton Harbor citizen can,” Nelson said. “It’s the same rights and privileges.”

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 Dec. 8, 2016)

Benton Township trustees say no to proposed gas station

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Efforts to build a gas station/convenience store along M-63 in Benton Township were halted once again Tuesday night.

Benton Township trustees denied Pri Mar Petroleum’s request at Tuesday’s meeting to rezone land along the corner of M-63 and Enterprise Way, which kept the company from submitting plans for a gas station.

The board’s decision comes on the heels of two recommendations to deny the rezoning request by the township and Berrien County planning commissions.

Clerk Carolyn Phillips, who serves on the township’s planning commission, gave trustees a recap of the meeting and made the motion to deny the request.

Pri Mar previously applied for a special use permit for the gas station in 2007, which was also denied.

The land, owned by Pri Mar, is zoned D-2 professional. The St. Joseph company wanted to rezone it to D-1 retail commercial, which has more options for developments.

Craig Marzke, chief operating officer of Pri Mar, said when they first applied for a special use permit in 2007, the land was zoned residential.

The proposed convenience store portion of the project would have been about 6,000 square feet, with 3,500 of it being showroom space.

After the meeting, Marzke said he was surprised there wasn’t much discussion on the topic and felt they were prepared to address any of the trustees’ concerns.

When asked what his plans are after being denied a second time in 10 years, Marzke said they’ll look at their options. He said they’ll look into submitting another request, selling the property or finding a different development project.

“The township has got to go back and rework their master plan,” Marzke said. “Right along M-63, we need retail. We’re right next to a highway so we could have a big impact. We’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”

During the township planning commission meeting in October several nearby residents were vocal during the public hearing portion. Traffic was a concern because the station would be just south of where M-63’s four lanes become two.

Pri Mar provided trustees with a traffic study, what form of security system would be used and information on noise and lighting that residents had issues with.

“We felt the products and services we want to offer are needed in that area,” said Kurt Marzke, Craig’s brother, during the meeting. “We realize that the D-2 zoning is what it is. We feel this development is a positive for everyone.”

Trustees were also given several letters voicing support and opposition to the project. The majority of opposition to the proposed gas station came from Woodridge Place and Rocky Gap residents.

In another matter, Supervisor Kevin White announced that the land at 2860 M-139 was officially bought by DeNooyer Automotive Group, a Kalamazoo-based car dealership.

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 Dec. 7, 2016)