Preliminary plans for former Art Van building released

The former Art Van building, 318 Grand River Ave., is seen vacant Thursday, April 23, 2015 in downtown Port Huron. St. Clair County purchased the building one year ago for $560,000. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

The former Art Van building, 318 Grand River Ave., is seen vacant Thursday, April 23, 2015 in downtown Port Huron. St. Clair County purchased the building one year ago for $560,000. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

Preliminary plans for the former Art Van building in downtown Port Huron include a pavilion, outdoor seating area and parking.

County and city officials Thursday narrowed down concepts for the property at 318 Grand River Ave.

“Whether the facility ends up looking like these concepts, I couldn’t tell you,” said St. Clair County Administrator Bill Kauffman. “We need to look at the potential costs and funding sources. We’re also looking at costs for demolishing the existing building if none of these concepts are approved.”

County and city officials met Thursday to look over concepts for the property.

“Right now that is all it is. It’s just an idea,” said Port Huron City Manager James Freed. “It will be interesting to explore what type of grant funding can come out of this. Anything to draw tourists and visitors is always welcomed.”

It has been nearly a year since the county purchased the 46,800-square-foot building for $560,000. It’s been four months since the county hired two architectural firms to come up with concepts for the building.

SyDesign, a Port Huron-based firm, and Infuz Ltd. in St. Clair, were asked to come up with plans that included an outdoor pavilion or amphitheater, as well as a design of whatever they thought could work well in the downtown. SyDesign was paid $6,980 for its two renderings, while Infuz Ltd. was paid $5,400.

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One concept by SyDesign would add an additional 30 parking spaces south of the proposed pavilion that would join with the East Quay parking lot. In a concept by Infuz Ltd., angled parking spots would be added along Fort and Michigan streets.

Because those concepts involve city streets, Port Huron would need to be in on the discussions.

Freed said the city is intrigued by the ideas. With both renderings connecting the county property to the city’s East Quay parking lot, Freed said the city will make sure any improvements made to the downtown parking lot will join well with what the county does.

How much the project could cost has not been released.

Kauffman said the price range for the concepts is considered to be “reasonable.”

“We have looked at all of (the renderings) and realized some of these are unbelievably ambitious,” he said. “We don’t want to talk about a project publicly unless we are confident the project can happen. The last thing we want to do is talk about a concept when we have no idea what it’s going to cost or how it will be paid for.”

Board Chairman Jeff Bohm said there is no set deadline for choosing a concept, but says it is high on the county’s priority list.

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“There is no given timeframe, but I have no intention of having that building sitting there for another year,” he said. “I hate to put a timeframe on this, but there’s no reason we can’t make a decision on what we should do with this building in the next three months.”

According to Bohm, the county is looking at potential funding sources including the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and individual donors.

Funding the project will play a large factor in what happens to the property.

“The county is not looking to go it alone on this project,” Bohm said. “This thing needs partners. If there is no support, I will talk to the board about just a demo situation.”

The concepts will next be shown to the county commission, city council and community.

Kauffman has said the pavilion could be used for an artist market, a farmer’s market, an outdoor concert venue and as a covered ice rink in the winter.

“If you create a destination, there is going to be increased parking demands,” he said. “However, we also know if the site is not in use Monday through Friday, during regular business hours, then additional parking is going to be open.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 23, 2015)

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Insurance concerns sink parkway reverse periscope project

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

Plans to give visitors a glimpse of the hidden world under the St. Clair River are in murky waters.

Insurance needed for a “reverse periscope” along the waterway hasn’t been secured, and likely won’t be, officials said.

“It’s an unfortunate turn of events, but at least the sign portion is still solid,” said Lori Eschenburg, a planner for the county’s Metropolitan Planning Commission.

The community-driven Friends of the Island Loop will be installing 10 signs along the waterways this summer. Donations paid for the signs.

The periscope was supposed to be an addition to the sign project to promote the loop — the waterways that circle the north half of Port Huron: the Black River, Black River Canal, Lake Huron and St. Clair River — and make it a tourist stop.

The periscope was designed as a brass diver’s helmet, fitted with a video screen connected to an underwater camera, aimed at the underwater fish habitat and the Sidney Smith shipwreck. The helmet and viewer were to be attached to the seawall along the Edison Parkway railing.

Eschenburg said since ropes or a conduit would be attached to the seawall there, officials feared it would tempt people to swim down to the camera. The Friends of the Island Loop would need liability insurance in the event that someone drowned or was injured, she said.

Brian Martin, a volunteer for the Friends of the Island Loop, has been working on the periscope for five years.

Martin said it was not a cost issue — he just couldn’t find an insurance company to cover it.

“Concerns arose that the unit would encourage diving,” Martin said. “I set up the components already during one of our meetings and showed the concept working. Since then, even I had some changes I wanted to make to the basic design to give more choices to the viewer.”

Because the periscope would be located on city property, the city requires Martin to provide liability insurance.

The Community Foundation of St. Clair County donated $10,000 toward the sign project. An anonymous donor also gave $1,000.

Eschenburg said the $5,000 that the Blue Water Sport Fishing Association donated for the periscope will be returned.

“The community foundation pledge is secure,” she said. “We are going to give the $5,000 back to the Blue Water Sport Fishing Association and see if they will sponsor a sign instead.”

Eschenburg said the signs should be ready for installation by early June.

The signs will teach paddlers and other visitors about the history and natural resources along the route.

Planned signs will point out fish habitats, the 43rd parallel, the easternmost point in Michigan and more.

Martin said he is looking for other ways to use the periscope idea.

“I always believed the historic signage along the walkway was a better bang for the bucks than the periscope, and that it still going forward,” Martin said. “I hope to work more with Lori’s group and others to make Port Huron a better place.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 3, 2015)

St. Clair Riverview Plaza project needs $62,500 in 60 days

The Community Foundation of St. Clair County is working to raise $62,500 in 60 days. If it makes its goal, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation will match it, dollar for dollar, to help fund the remaining work of the St. Clair Riverview Plaza redevelopment. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

The Community Foundation of St. Clair County is working to raise $62,500 in 60 days. If it makes its goal, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation will match it, dollar for dollar, to help fund the remaining work of the St. Clair Riverview Plaza redevelopment. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

The Community Foundation of St. Clair County is working to raise $62,500 in 60 days.

If it makes its goal, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation will match it, dollar for dollar, to help fund the remaining work of the St. Clair Riverview Plaza redevelopment.

“The MEDC is investing in places that community members can gather at all across the state,” said Lynn Griffor, Community Foundation of St. Clair County vice president. “The St. Clair plaza is one of several communities that are vying for the grant.”

The $125,000 would go toward the second phase of the courtyard redevelopment, including a fireplace, fountain, decorative railing and art.

If the matching dollars aren’t raised by May 1, the community foundation will not receive the grant.

The first phase of the courtyard redevelopment cost $500,000, and included the excavation and infrastructure of the courtyard, said Randy Maiers, community foundation executive director.

The project as a whole is 85 percent complete. The grant and matching dollars would complete the project.

Griffor said the foundation is already $15,000 toward reaching its goal; Northstar Bank has pledged $10,000, and the Community Foundation’s Blue Water Arts Committee has donated $5,000.

Maiers said the courtyard redevelopment, which started in 2014, is expected to be complete for a June 18 grand opening.

“If the grant is matched, we will be able to complete phase two of construction which includes installing the fireplace, the fountain, decorative railings and local art,” Maiers said. “With the exception of laying down sod, phase one is complete.”

The two front corners closest to Riverside Drive will have fireplaces with more seating with tables clustered next to Achatz Riverview Restaurant.

The back of the courtyard will arch in a half-moon shape with a pergola on each side, a fountain in the middle, and amphitheater style steps to sit on leading down to the grass.

Other communities that are trying for similar grants include Adrian, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Imlay City, Ironwood, Lansing, Marquette, Pontiac and Ypsilanti.

Projects vary from skate parks to art centers.

“The great thing about this program is it engages other communities in the program,” Griffor said. “The MEDC support really creates this buy-in for the courtyard.”

The grant is part of the Public Spaces, Community Places program, which is a collaborative effort of the MEDC, the Michigan Municipal League and Patronicity, where local residents can use crowd funding to be part of the development of strategic projects in their communities.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 4, 2015)

Reverse periscope to be installed along water trail will reveal river bottom

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

The Island Loop National Water Trail is a draw for Port Huron-area paddlers and tourists.

This summer, what’s underneath it may become the star attraction.

A “reverse periscope” will let people watch real-time video of the St. Clair River’s bottom from the Thomas Edison Parkway. A video screen will be installed inside a brass diver’s helmet and connected to an underwater camera aimed at underwater fish habitat and the Sidney Smith shipwreck.

“There is nothing like this device in the world,” Lori Eschenburg, a planner for the county’s Metropolitan Planning Commission, said.

“The reverse periscope is a high-quality diver’s helmet that allows users to see and hear what divers experience,” Eschenburg said. “It will also have a viewer that allows people in wheelchairs who cannot peer into the diver’s helmet to view the underwater scene on a computer screen.”

The helmet and viewer will be attached to the seaway along the Edison Parkway railings, she said.

The Friends of the Island Loop will also be installing interpretive signs along the Island Loop — the waterways that circle the north half of Port Huron: the Black River, Black River Canal, Lake Huron and St. Clair River. The signs will teach paddlers and other visitors about the history and natural resources along the route.

Planned signs would point out fish habitat, the 43rd parallel, the easternmost point in Michigan and more.

A $10,000 grant from the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, $6,000 from the Blue Water Sport Fishing Association and money from an anonymous donor are paying for the project.

Eschenburg said the goal is to have the 10 signs installed by June 1.

“We are going to shoot for June 1, but we will for sure have the reverse periscope installed by then,” she said. “The community foundation still has to approve the signs’ style and type. That’s just part of grant compliance.”

“The water trial is a huge honor to the area,” said Nancy Winzer, Port Huron’s recreation director. “I think we need to keep enhancing what we do along the trail. We’re lucky to have great groups working on a thing like this.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 26, 2015)

Moving barriers: Running enthusiasts create fund for children in need

Tayshaun Bowie, 9, runs down the sidewalk during an after school run club at Cleveland Elementary School in Port Huron. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

Tayshaun Bowie, 9, runs down the sidewalk during an after school run club at Cleveland Elementary School in Port Huron. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

For 20 minutes every Thursday, Dawn Schweihofer runs with two dozen Cleveland Elementary students as part of an after-school running club.

As a fifth grade science and social studies teacher, Schweihofer makes sure these students run one mile, read one book and do one good deed once a week.

However, the real difference came when Schweihofer took part in the Jingle Bell Run on Dec. 6, 2014, in Port Huron with Amy Meeker-Taylor and Christine Shigley.

Schweihofer noticed two of her students were running in jeans because their families couldn’t buy buy jogging clothes.

“Both students were in my class, and they were wearing the exact same clothes they wore in class,” Schweihofer said. “Another girl in class wears the same shoes she’s had since third grade.”

The three have created the Starting Line Youth Running Fund to help children who want to run but cannot afford shoes, apparel or entry fees for local races.

“We wanted to find a way to move past those barriers that are holding them back,” Schweihofer said. “There are a lot of fees, so many don’t even enter.”

The fund’s main focus will be to work with elementary running clubs and their advisers, Shigley said.

“We’ll be there, whether it’s buying and donating apparel or making sure the running clubs have water and snacks,” Shigley said. “The bulk of what we are going to do is partner up with other racers and have them donate extra money to our fund and sponsor entries for kids.”

Most of the donations will help pay entry fees for local races. Schweihofer said most races require $20 to $25 to register a runner.

Schweihofer said the fund eventually will offer scholarships to pay for half of the students’ entry fees.

“We are hoping to maybe even cover all of it,” she said. “We will start locally with the highest need in the Port Huron Area School District.”

The fund was created Jan. 6, with the funds handled by the Community Foundation of St. Clair County.

Lynn Alexander, community foundation vice president, said the three organizers came to the organization in early December.

When the founders discovered how much paperwork and money went into creating their own charity, they realized they could do the same thing by creating a fund with the community foundation.

“It’s something that is common. It’s easier to go through us,” Alexander said. “From my perspective, I like it when individuals in the community work with us to fulfill a need.”

The two parties established a fund agreement that spelled out what the donations would be used for and allowed the foundation to process a grant on behalf of the running fund organizers.

Shigley said organizers have two events planned to help raise money for the fund.

On Feb. 12, Fuel Woodfire Grill at 213 Huron Ave., Port Huron,will have a dinner night with 10 percent of sales donated back to the fund.

The other is a “Girl’s Night Out” wine tasting event at Green Barn Winery in Smiths Creek from 6-8 p.m. Feb. 28. Money that comes in from the pre-ordered $40 tickets also will go back into the fund.

The fund had raised $2,080 as of Tuesday, Shigley said.

People can donate online at startinglineyouthrunningfund.weebly.com or through the community foundation.

Schweihofer said she and her colleagues are trying not to bite off more than they can chew in the early stages.

Shira Maydwell, 9, Dawn Schweihofer and Kendall Urie, 10, run laps around Cleveland Elementary School. (Tony Wittkowski | Times Herald)

Shira Maydwell, 9, Dawn Schweihofer and Kendall Urie, 10, run laps around Cleveland Elementary School. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

“I know that we want to be able to reach well beyond the Blue Water Area,” Schweihofer said. “We hope it can become a statewide thing, but we want to promote this area for now.”

The fund’s first effort will take place in conjunction with Marysville High School’s Pi Day 5K on March 14 — a 1.57-mile run coordinated by Shigley. Running club students who participate in the fun run won’t pay their entry fee and will be sponsored by donations collected by the running fund.

“We are going to take those donations and use them to sponsor entries into the 1.57-mile fun run for running club students from Cleveland Elementary and Woodrow Wilson Elementary,” Shigley said. “Depending on how much money we receive in donations, we’d like to be able to offer entries to other clubs in the area.”

The running club at Cleveland Elementary will be one of the first to benefit from the fund. Cleveland has the only Port Huron-based running club that begins running in January, Schweihofer said.

With snow on the ground, students ran four laps around the school’s perimeter to accumulate their weekly mile.

“It just means the entire running community has embraced these kids and realized there is more to them than just a statistic,” Schweihofer said. “They invest in more than what they are doing in that moment. It means they want to be part of their future success.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 27, 2015)