State police to help Benton Harbor stem violent crime

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR – Michigan State Police troopers began work at the Benton Harbor police station this week, in an effort to help a city with a violent crime rate even higher than Detroit.

Capt. Michael Brown, 5th District commander for the state police, said two troopers and a state police sergeant were stationed with Benton Harbor police on Monday in its detective bureau as part of the state’s Secure Cities Partnership initiative.

The initiative was created by Gov. Rick Snyder to support law enforcement efforts in Detroit, Flint and Saginaw as FBI statistics rank them among the nation’s top 10 most violent cities.

Brown said the initiative was broadened to include cities on the west side of the state such as Benton Harbor, Benton Township, Muskegon and Muskegon Heights.

“This is part of our state initiative to offer assistance to some of the communities combating violent crimes,” Brown said. “While it has primarily been used on the east side in cities with high crime per capita, there are other smaller communities that we have offered our assistance to. We still have some logistics to work out, but we are operational right now.”

After meeting with Dan McGinnis, acting public safety director for Benton Harbor, Brown said state police determined the best thing they could do was provide Benton Harbor with assistance in their detective bureau.

The process has been a five-month effort between both agencies.

“We have a detective bureau that does a great job and we have a pretty good conviction rate,” McGinnis said, “but because we are so busy, some of the smaller cases get left behind.”

By the numbers

According to crime stats, Benton Harbor, with a population of 10,020, recorded 236 violent crimes in 2013 and had the highest violent crime rate per 1,000 residents in Michigan, at 23.6.

Detroit, with 688,701 residents, had 15,115 violent crimes in 2013, with a rate of 21.9 per 1,000 residents, and Flint saw 2,026 violent crimes, with a rate of 20.3.

Violent crimes counted included homicides, criminal sexual conduct and armed robberies.

The crime rate is predicated on population numbers, which inflates Benton Harbor’s rate due to of its low population, McGinnis said.

“I don’t agree with the methodology, but at the same time I’m not going to turn down additional help that’s going to help us close cases and get citizens the justice they deserve,” McGinnis said.

Daily operations will remain the same, as state troopers will use Benton Harbor’s systems, network and evidence locker, McGinnis said.

McGinnis said the state’s presence within Benton Harbor will be open-ended.

“We are there to help investigate any violent crimes that occur in the community,” he said. “We have similar operations that have been going on for a number of years with assistance to other detective bureaus. We see this as a partnership with Benton Harbor.”

Benton Harbor police has three detectives, but with the addition of a state detective sergeant and two detective troopers, the size of the department’s detective bureau has doubled.

Benton Harbor will not pay for the troopers’ salaries as they are covered by the state.

Cooperation between the state police and the Benton Harbor Police Department is not new. When crime in Benton Harbor escalated in 1996, Gov. John Engler ordered state troopers to help patrol the city.

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 June 16, 2015)

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Baker College dorms remain on construction schedule

The Blue Water Bridge is seen in the distance Mon, April 6, behind the future Baker College student housing in Port Huron. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

The Blue Water Bridge is seen in the distance Mon, April 6, behind the future Baker College student housing in Port Huron. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

After breaking ground in early December, the Baker College student apartments are one third of the way complete.

Jim Cummins, president and chief executive officer of the Baker College system, said the work has been moving forward as planned. The 48-bed student apartment building should be completed by August, and ready for students in September.

“That gives us plenty of time to get it furnished and have all the final touches done,” he said. “It’s still in the rough stage. A lot of the internal walls should be close to ready to be put in.”

Since work began on the 11,472-square-foot structure, the foundation has been completed, and external walls and framing are near completion.

According to weekly reports Cummins receives from Orion Construction, the majority of the plumbing and electrical work is done.

“There is still a lot of interior work to be done,” Cummins said. “I don’t believe the brick work is going to begin until sometime early in May. I’m encouraged by the fact that it’s right on schedule.”

Cummins said the new student apartments costs between $3.5 million and $3.6 million.

The two-story building will house 48 beds in 17 units.

Orion Construction — a Grand Rapids company that has also worked on Baker College’s Culinary Institute of Michigan building and the Blue Water Convention Center — is heading up the project.

Cory Bixby, director of marketing and public relations at Orion Construction, said framing of the building is about 90 percent done.

The next component of construction will be roofing and drying the interior of the building.

“That roofing portion is going to go fast,” Bixby said. “It should be completed in two weeks with dry weather. A lot of the detail work will take a little more time.”

Donald Torline, president of Baker College in Clinton Township and Port Huron, said the dorms are being built specifically for the culinary students but might consider other students if they don’t fill the entire building.

“We expect the students to be in the dorms this coming fall near the end of September,” he said. “If we don’t fill all of those apartments we might reconsider that decision.”

Baker College also offers dorm living to students at its campuses in Cadillac, Flint, Muskegon and Owosso.

“We’re invested in that campus in Port Huron,” Torline said. “We believe it is a good location for the culinary arts. We are hoping to get more people out of the state by having these dorms so close to the facility.”

Marguerte Gavin, who lives near the site, said the construction has not bothered her.

Gavin said the work has been going by fast and thinks the student housing will make a great addition to the St. Clair River waterfront.

“They look like they are going to be beautiful dorms,” she said. “It doesn’t obstruct my view as far as seeing the river or the bridge. I’m happy with it.”

Port Huron resident Dewey Conrad lives across the street from the structure and said it is larger than he imagined.

“Even more of my view is gone than I thought, but that’s life in the city,” he said. “The city’s got to make money and I would like it if they had made it a park, but it is what it is.”

Conrad said it has been interesting to watch the construction over the last four months when workers began cleaning up the area. He said the construction crews put up a large tent where they began to pour the foundation’s concrete during the winter.

Despite all the work that has been done, Conrad said he’ll miss his view across the border.

“When I first bought this place 17 years ago I looked out and told myself, ‘enjoy that view, because it’s not going to be there forever,'” he said. “It’s nice to see the culinary school doing so well, but I like to look at the casino that is behind it in Canada.”

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 6, 2015)

A different path: Karate instructor uses eighth-degree black belt to teach life lessons

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By Tony Wittkowski | Reporter | MLive – Muskegon Chronicle

MUSKEGON, MI — As soon as Salomon Villalpando steps onto the mat and takes his glasses off, he becomes another person.

For three nights a week, the eighth-degree black belt wears his red kimono and teaches life lessons using karate.

With an insignia on his back that reads “Train Like a Champion,” Villalpando begins to stretch in front of his Wednesday night class. With his feet wrapped in black tape, the 57-year-old karate instructor bows in front of his students as a sign of respect.

It’s on that mat where Villalpando faces the many difficulties he has come across.

“Karate challenged my life and taught me to go beyond those obstacles,” Villalpando said. “Martial arts keeps me on the right trial, but God’s faith keeps me going.”

The Norton Shores resident first got involved in karate when he was 15 years old after being jumped by some kids who went to his high school.

To this day Villalpando doesn’t know why they did it, but it was the main motivating factor that got him to where he is today.

Salomon Villalpando watches as his son Caleb, 19, perform what is instructed during one of Salomon's karate classes. (Andraya Croft | MLive.com)

Salomon Villalpando watches as his son Caleb, 19, perform what is instructed during one of Salomon’s karate classes. (Andraya Croft | MLive.com)

As the son of a pastor, Villalpando went down a different path than his father – although both would encourage peace and discipline in their undertakings.

When he began at first, it was just a way to defend himself. But as he grew bigger and became faster than others in his class, Villalpando realized he wanted to teach the sport to others.

During a training session in the Norton Pines Athletic Club, Villalpando spent the majority of his time as an attacker – taking an elbow to the head, being thrown to the ground and absorbing punches to the gut – in order to help his students react and counter any attack.

By reliving his days as that bullied 15-year-old who was a little too shy and timid, he was helping others avoid those scary scenarios.

“Karate comes in a variety of ways,” Villalpando said. “There is discipline, respect and self-confidence that are all a part of it.”

Making an impact

As a result of his teachings, Villalpando receives letters from former students thanking him. He’s gone on to speak at seminars and even taught a karate class at Muskegon Community College for years.

In his 42 years in karate, Villalpando has earned more than just his eighth-degree black belt.

His injuries have been chasing him throughout his career. Villalpando has had surgery on his knees, broken his shoulder, clavicle and nose, while also blowing out his Achilles – an injury that was the most difficult to come back from.

Yet, he’s the first one to say those injuries are not a big deal because those scars are a reminder of not only his mistakes, but what he has overcome.

This is something Villalpando tries to pass on to his son, Caleb, who took up karate at a younger age than he did.

“I didn’t want to push him, but I wanted to make sure this was a part of his life,” Villalpando said. “I’m glad he stayed with it.”

His son received his third-degree black belt this summer at the age of 19. The two train constantly and have never been closer as a result.

“He’s a big influence because he got me into karate,” Caleb said of his dad. “I was quite shy as a kid and I wouldn’t come out of my shell and talk to people a lot. Karate has given me more confidence and helped me become the best that I can be.”

In his sessions, Villalpando wears his black belt snug around his waist, which exhibits eight red dashes to symbolize the degree of expertise. His name is written in small, gold letters around the rest of the belt that hangs loosely at his hip.

When he moves with speed and fluidity, the red dashes seem to blend into one single band. Amid the palm attacks, tiger claws and front-snap kicks are brief periods of relaxation and solemnity. It’s easy to see that being on that mat next to his son and the wide array of students is what makes Villalpando the happiest.

“I’ve put everything into this. This is my life,” Villalpando said, smiling afterward. “If I could do this for a living, I would.”

Tony Wittkowski is a staff reporter at MLive Muskegon Chronicle. Email him at twittkow@mlive.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 2, 2014)

Interactive walks in Grand Haven, Montague to highlight Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem

By Tony Wittkowski | Reporter | MLive – Muskegon Chronicle

MUSKEGON, MI — Some churches in the Muskegon area will be providing church-goers with the opportunity to visit events featuring key elements of the Christmas season this December.

The religious focus of the season will be the focus of events in Montague and Grand Haven.

The Ferry Memorial Reformed Church in Montague will be hosting the Journey of Joy from 6-8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6 and Sunday, Dec. 7. The event is designed to allow friends and families to follow a recreation of the path to the birth place of Jesus Christ.

Jeanne Flanders, director for the Journey of Joy, said the church, 8637 Old Channel Trail, will have dozens of patrons moving in and out throughout the first weekend of December.

“There will be a scene with lepers and then eventually people travel on to the shepherds in a field and the angels start singing in another room,” Flanders said. “We travel outside to run into some nomads and we end up in what was the manger.”

The walk that features a guide has become a major attraction with its interactive aspects, hot chocolate and cookies. The interactive walk will have sheep, a donkey, chickens, roosters and a baby calf, Flanders said.

The walk has been going on for more than 20 years and has gone through some changes over time. Flanders has been the director of the walk for the last 10 years and in that time several scenes have been added, including the one with lepers.

“We probably have on an average night anywhere from 250 to 300 people,” Flanders said. “There is no cost to come in, but we do put a basket out for free will. We don’t do it for a money maker. It’s just a really neat way to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.”

A Journey to Bethlehem

A walk organized by St. John’s Lutheran Church that takes place at Duncan Woods in Grand Haven will be held over the course of three days.

With the walk starting at the United Methodist Church of the Dunes, 717 Sheldon Road, attendees can purchase their tickets for various walk times ranging from 5:45-9 p.m. Dec. 11-13.

Terri Metzger, project leader for the Journey to Bethlehem, said the walk is unique because it unifies approximately 28 churches from the Tri-Cities area.

“All different kinds of faiths and denominations are present at the walk at night,” Metzger said. “It represents the travels that Mary and Joseph made from Nazareth and Bethlehem.”

Entering its third year, the walk allows travelers in groups of 25 to be led by guides in costumes. Attendees start at United Methodist where they are then transported to the Duncan Woods for a 45-minute walk.

Metzger said afterward all participants have time to wind down and have cookies and hot chocolate at United Methodist.

“We have built the city of Bethlehem off site so we put it up in the park,” Metzger said. “People get to meet Roman soldiers on horseback, Rabbis, shepherds and sheep in a stable.”

St. John’s is still selling tickets at $5 a person. Metzger said they have been sold out the previous two years after selling 3,750 tickets. For more information on purchasing a ticket, visit the event website at www.journey2bethlehem.com/

Tony Wittkowski is a staff reporter at MLive Muskegon Chronicle. Email him at twittkow@mlive.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 1, 2014)

Muskegon-area duo to be inducted into National Softball Association Hall of Fame

By Tony Wittkowski | Reporter | MLive – Muskegon Chronicle

MUSKEGON, MI — For Chuck Modd and Joe Gould, softball has been more than a hobby.

Dec. 6 in Lansing, the two longtime friends will be given rings and plaques as 2014 inductees to the National Softball Association Hall of Fame. They will be joined by other players, coaches and umpires who have made a significant impact with the NSA.

Modd, a North Muskegon resident, said he is honored to be nominated with Gould because the two have shared the same field in slow-pitch softball  sometimes on opposite sides  for more than 30 years.

“The honor is very flattering, but going in with one of your friends is even more special,” Modd said. “We used to play against one another, but we became friends over the years.”

The 54-year-old softball player, who is currently listed on the roster for the Legion of Boom, said he never dreamed of playing into his 40s.

As a hard-hitting leadoff man, Modd came up through the ranks as a quick center fielder who found a way to get on base. As time passed, Modd moved to catcher and played the occasional right field when he wasn’t a designated hitter.

“He’s made the appropriate changes in his game as time has gone on,” said Gould. “He is willing to do anything for you on the field and off the field. You don’t see that anymore. These young kids today, think they can just play the leagues.”

Having played for six world champion teams, Modd has plenty of experience that goes beyond his level of play.

Unfortunately, Modd had a catastrophic knee injury last year and said he knows the hobby has a price. The former center fielder said he plans on playing at least one more year.

“I don’t fish. I don’t hunt. I play ball,” Modd said. “The trophies and the awards are nice, but it’s the friendships and the memories that last.”

Gould, the other 54-year-old listed on the Legion of Boom’s roster, has played on the same team with Modd for the last eight seasons.

Having started at similar times, the two played against one another often. Both were competitive and both were on good teams, so it was only natural they became friends as the years went on.

“He’s the greatest defensive player the game has ever seen,” Modd said of Gould’s ability to field a tough hopper. “His dad used to hit him ground balls on a gravel road. He could impact the game defensively with his glove.”

Modd said he thinks very highly of Gould, also calling him the “greatest two-way player in the game.”

Through the travels of tournaments, Gould played around the country on his way to earning numerous honors, such as All-Tournament Team, a Golden Glove Award and League MVP.

“(Softball) was really big in the ’80s and the ’90s,” Gould said. “At that point, you played because it was fun. We got to play on some really good teams and it was very nice and humbling.”

Gould’s softball career has continued for more than 35 years, while 25 of those years were with the NSA. Gould won 12 state titles and four world championships under the bevy of teams for which he played.

Because of his age and the league in which he played  a five-man infield  the expert shortstop made the move to middle infielder five years ago.

“We have to work quite a bit harder to keep up with the kids these days,” Gould said. “With all the softball that I’ve played, it was great to be acknowledged. When you first start playing, you never think it will come to something like that. I’m honored.”

Tony Wittkowski is a staff reporter at MLive Muskegon Chronicle. Email him at twittkow@mlive.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 19, 2014)

Residents show support for Boys & Girls Club of Muskegon County at public unveiling

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By Tony Wittkowski | Reporter | MLive – Muskegon Chronicle

MUSKEGON, MI — A Boys & Girls Club that will serve children and teenagers is inching closer to opening in Muskegon County.

Residents and Muskegon-area leaders met for a public unveiling for the club on Tuesday, Nov. 18 at Nelson Elementary School, located on 550 W. Grand Ave.

Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson, who also serves as board president for the Boys & Girls Club of Muskegon County, said the event was a way to show the public what has been done in the past couple of months.

“This will also serve as a capital campaign,” Hilson said. “We’ve been successful so far, raising almost $600,000 with a mixture of donations and grants.”

The local club is in the process of hiring an executive director and will likely open during the first quarter of 2015, Hilson said.

While the club will lease space in the Muskegon elementary school, it will be open to all area young people ages 5-18. Hilson said the plan is to operate the club Mondays through Fridays from 3-7 p.m.

Since discovering the arrival of the club, parents have been emailing Hilson with positive feedback as well as asking for ways on how they can help.

“The vision and all the talk is finally turning into a reality,” Hilson said. “One of our goals is to collect three years of an operating budget and we are hoping by the end of December to reach that mark. We are well over halfway now and are reaching out to the community to see if they can get us the rest of the way.”

Chris McGuigan, president of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, said the public event also served as a way for parents and residents to learn more about what the club has to offer.

Services will include tutoring, life skills and other various opportunities and activities between the hours of 3-7 p.m. — a time when kids need something to do, McGuigan said.

When deciding where to establish the site, McGuigan said they conducted a demographic study and discovered Nelson to be a neighborhood that was the most accessible to kids who needed it the most. One of the things that has amazed McGuigan has been the local support from residents and the elementary school.

“Every person who has joined this effort didn’t have to be asked twice,” McGuigan said. “There is such an overwhelming desire to take care of our kids. This is something our kids need and I just wanted to thank all the people, especially Muskegon Public Schools.”

RELATED: Boys & Girls Club expected to open in Muskegon in early 2015

Rick Huisman, the executive director for the Boys & Girls Club of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth, made a trip to Muskegon to share some of the positive experiences he has noticed at their location.

With more than two dozen people in attendance, Huisman issued a statement on starting a Boys & Girls Club in Muskegon.

“The Boys & Girls Club has been a special place for me,” he said. “It’s not going to be an easy process, but the rewards are well worth it.”

Tony Wittkowski is a staff reporter at MLive Muskegon Chronicle. Email him at twittkow@mlive.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 19, 2014)

Muskegon Museum of Art to use ’12 Days of Christmas’ theme for Festival of Trees

By Tony Wittkowski | Reporter | MLive – Muskegon Chronicle

MUSKEGON, MI — The Muskegon Museum of Art will open its doors for the upcoming Festival of Trees on Thursday, Nov. 20.

Judy Hayner, executive director of the Muskegon Museum of Art, is shown setting up one of the exhibits from a previous year. (MLive File Photo)

Judy Hayner, executive director of the Muskegon Museum of Art, is shown setting up one of the exhibits from a previous year. (MLive File Photo)

The festival, which is in its 10th year of being hosted by the museum, will conclude on Nov. 30. For those 11 days, volunteers will transform the museum galleries into a festive arrangement of Christmas trees, décor, a gingerbread village and a model train display.

Marguerite Curran-Gawron, communications and public relations manager at the Muskegon Museum of Art, said the festival will have a number of special events that will coincide with its overall theme within those 11 days.

“This year’s festival theme is the ’12 Days of Christmas,'” Curran-Gawron said. “We do a different them each year, with last year’s being candy town.”

The themed decorations and trees are created by local designers and sponsored by individuals and organizations in the community, Curran-Gawron said.

“This has become a traditional community event,” Curran-Gawron said. “We hold it around the Thanksgiving holiday and early enough so people can bid on their trees. It’s also a nice thing to hold around the holidays when people start thinking about Christmas.”

Admission for the limited-time event will be $7 per adult, $3 per child ages 3 to 17 – with anyone under the age of 3 allowed in for free – and $5 for Muskegon Museum of Art members. The hours of admission are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, with Sunday hours running from noon to 5 p.m.

“The funds will go into our budget and we can use that for programs throughout the year,” Curran-Gawron said. “It’s a nice time to deck the museum out and invite everyone.”

To learn about sponsorship opportunities, becoming a volunteer, or purchasing single and group reservations, call the Muskegon Museum of Art at 231-720-2571.

A list of the upcoming events are as follows:

VIP Mingle Preview Party – Wednesday, Nov. 19, 6 p.m.
Holiday Cheer! Michigan Beer! – Saturday, Nov. 22, 6 p.m.
Deck You Halls Home Decorating Workshop – Sunday, Nov. 23, 3-5 p.m.
Festival Senior Day – Tuesday, Nov. 25, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Festival Family Day – Wednesday, Nov. 26, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Teddy Bear Breakfast – Saturday, Nov. 29, 8:30-10 a.m.

Tony Wittkowski is a staff reporter at MLive Muskegon Chronicle. Email him at twittkow@mlive.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 11, 2014)