Monthly Archives: April 2014

DDA Strategic Planning Begins for Downtown Vicksburg

Tanya DeLong and Jamie Poel listen to Kathy Hoyle, the DDA acting director, explain the visioning process the DDA is putting together.

By Sue Moore

A lot of dreaming took place at the strategic planning session for the Vicksburg Downtown Development Authority (DDA). Seventeen residents met at the invitation of Kathy Hoyle, the acting director and expert in strategic planning, having already led the Village Council through the process and South County Community Services board.

A few of the common themes that arose from the two hours of discussion at the visioning session were the small town atmosphere, the historic theme in the community, the outdoor amenities, and the shopping, dining and entertainment offered. These will all be studied and elaborated upon while preparing a strategic plan to bring to the DDA board and village council for approval.

Hoyle’s position was partially funded by the Vicksburg Foundation with half of the six-month salary coming from funds held through its Tax Increment Financing (TIF) powers. Her charge from the Foundation and the DDA board, in creating the director’s post, was to bring citizens together to construct a foundation and structure for growth for the village.

The first step is the strategic planning session, focusing on strengths, struggles, opportunities and then creating a vision. She and Bill Adams, village president, went door to door downtown to meet the business owners, recruit them to take part in the process and get their input, even if they couldn’t attend all five planning sessions.

“A lot of very passionate people want to help and get involved,” Adams reported after his walk-about. Once the strategic plan is agreed upon, then a business plan to focus the DDA on a path of growth and activities to differentiate itself from other communities will be prepared. The third phase will be to implement the plans, launch new initiatives, and initiate marketing and communications activities.

Didik Soekarmoen, who sits on the DDA board and the Vicksburg Foundation, said he was really happy to see the changes and progress over the last few months. “The encouragement from the Foundation was just the kick we needed to get going,” Adams added.

The tools the DDA will have at its disposal include the tax capture funds from a 1995 tax base and the difference in the appreciated value of properties within the boundaries of the DDA. At present, this amounts to approximately $75,000 for 2015, once the Rise and Dine building is sold to John and Debbie Debault, the current lease holders.

Lions Club Schedules Clean-Up Day in Vicksburg

clean up day 009Rakes, shovels, and trash bags, will be needed to gather the last vestiges of winter when the Vicksburg Lions Club spends Saturday, April 19, cleaning up sites around the village from 9 a.m. to noon.

Lions Club members and any other volunteers will clean-up sites including the Kids Connection facility on W. Prairie Street, Sunset Elementary, South County Community Services, and the community gardens. They will also be raking leaves at local residences.

Recently, the service day has also been coordinated with the Vicksburg Little League’s own spring cleanup at their facilities. This year, volunteers will work at this site as well as Sunset Lake Park, the high school courtyard, and the new community pavilion.

The Lions Club has sponsored these bi-annual service days for several years now in order to refocus its efforts as a local service club. Up to 60 volunteers have joined them in the past years.

Individual volunteers and other community groups are encouraged to join in the effort. Interested parties can get more information and a site assignment by emailing the club’s service coordinator Katie Grossman at

Vicksburg is Home to a Minerals and Mining Company


By Sue Moore

Chris Hayward of Schoolcraft got his start in manufacturing just after high school in Vicksburg by stacking bags of perlite at Harborlite in 1987. Imerys acquired Harborlite Corporation in 2005, and the company has now been renamed Imerys Perlite USA, Inc.

Hayward has now moved up the chain of command to become U.S. Perlite Operations Manager of North America Filtration Minerals.

Other long-time employees are Peg Parsons, Mike Crouch, and Troy Cantwell, who have been with the company since 1975, 1987, and 1989, respectively. This longevity, speaks well for the company that has transitioned from ownership by the Blunt family to Imerys International, based in Paris, France.

Robert Blunt, Sr., founder of the company, saw the potential of a perlite based filter aid in 1948, when he was Grefco Minerals sales manager. He felt that the perlite mineral would make a terrific filtration aid, but the management didn’t see it that way, so he went out on his own, forming Harborlite Corporation in 1951.

Blunt purchased a perlite mine in Arizona in 1959 to have control of the product from end to end. His sons, Robert Jr., Bill and Dave, joined sometime thereafter, charged with opening a plant in Vicksburg, Michigan, in 1969 to be near the Upjohn Corporation, which became a steady customer. In 1992, World Minerals bought out the family interests, but Bill and Dave stayed on to run the corporation until 1997.

Meanwhile, Hayward had been transferred to World Minerals Headquarters in Santa Barbara, CA working as a technical services manager, but his wife wanted to come back to this area, where she has deep roots.

All this time, Hayward had been working his way through college, first KVCC then WMU, finally obtaining a BA in business in 2004.

He had left Harborlite to return to Michigan but got a phone call in 2005 from the new owners, Imerys, asking him to return as Vicksburg plant manager and U.S. operations manager, his dream job. He oversees eight plants in the U.S. and travels about two weeks out of each month.

The Vicksburg location is one of eight operations in the U.S. focused on mining and minerals. The plants are located close to each one’s customer base, with the actual mine for perlite in Superior, Arizona.

Chris Hayward holds up a bag of Perlite at the Imerys plant on W Avenue in Vicksburg.

Imerys is the largest industrial mining company in the world supplying mineral derived products to all kinds of industries, including but not limited to paint, inks, construction products, plastics, sealants and adhesives, lawn care and landscaping, health and beauty and nutrition products. It had revenues of $5.1 billion in 2013, with 15,800 employees.

The perlite that is processed in Vicksburg is largely used as a filtration media used in industrial enzymes, pharmaceutical fermentation broths, vegetable oils, fruit juices, corn sweeteners, beet sugar, alginates, waste and pool water, and inorganic chemicals.

There are nine employees in the local plant who know the business of expanding, sizing, and grinding the perlite to meet the performance requirements of the various industries. They can ship an order the same day or at least within one week, which allows them to stay ahead of their competitors who might need months to do the same, Hayward says.

Dan Gregart Has New Office in Schoolcraft

Monica Dixon and Dan Gregart in their newly refurbished office in Schoolcraft.

By Sue Moore

Dan Gregart was looking for a building in Schoolcraft for his insurance business last spring. He had purchased a portion of an insurance business headquartered in Three Rivers which served south Kalamazoo county, necessitating a location in Schoolcraft.  So, he thought if he prayed hard enough, something would surely turn up.

On a visit to Schoolcraft to look for a building, he parked his car, took a short walk downtown and called Bill Koopsen in the Pizza Hut office building, thinking it looked like an agreeable spot.

It wasn’t for rent, but Koopsen did have another building on Grand Street he was remodeling, a building that in the past had been an antiques shop, church meeting venue, and even a newspaper office.

“I hadn’t even started praying yet,” says Gregart, recalling the moment he was ushered into the building at 113 N. Grand. But he knew immediately it would be perfect. It was wide open and Koopsen was good with his promise to build it out to suit Gregart’s needs.

Gregart and his office manager, Monica Dixon, moved into the restored office building on June 1, 2013.

Insurance isn’t where Gregart started his career, but it’s one that he loves and suits his lifestyle needs. He started his career as an assistant golf pro in Gig Harbor, Washington, a job that required 70 hour work weeks, which he and his wife Brandy knew would be hard on the family they anticipated having.

So, they returned to this area since he had graduated from Portage Central High School and then Ferris State University. The Gregarts purchased a home on YZ Avenue in Vicksburg and he started in the insurance business, believing this would be the lifestyle he was looking for.

To build his business, he went door to door in the Tobey School area and then all over the county, meeting face to face with families, actually putting just as many hours in with the shoe leather as he had with the spikes on the golf course. He passed his 1,000th night out doing house calls, and gradually built his own credentials from 2006 to the present.

“My true passion is life insurance,” Gregart says. “I want to see each family protected properly. I see myself as becoming a family advisor, with home, auto, farm and business insurance as well.

“Meeting with potential clients in their homes, is the best part of the insurance business, getting to know the people and caring for them, is what drives me each day.”

Pride Drives the Work at Craft Precision Industries in Schoolcraft

Mike Rochholz, Steve Sutton, and Dick Haines of Craft Precision in Schoolcraft.

By Sue Moore

The name of Craft Precision Incorporated says it all to its customers, according to long-time employee, Dick Haines.

“If you don’t like it (a part he has made), you don’t pay for it,” was the company mantra when it started 22 years ago in Schoolcraft.

In the early years, the company founder, Lloyd Sutton, and Haines were the only employees, both former Maro Inc. workers, as are several others now on the payroll.

“I worked at the company in the early years, moonlighting for Lloyd when he first started, while we were still at Maro, south of Schoolcraft on U.S. 131,” says Haines. “When we started, Lloyd would even deliver parts to companies to get them there on time.”

One of their biggest customers was Engineering Plastic Components (EPC) which made parts and sold them to Ford Motor Company. Now Craft Precision has moved in another direction, making parts for the aerospace industry.

According to Haines, there was a turning point in the business when Sutton purchased computer numerical control (CNC) machinery in 1993. It was a transition that helped Craft win business from Stryker Corporation. The medical field demands precision and cosmetic appearances, so the computerized equipment expanded the company’s capabilities, Haines says.

Their biggest customer these days is B/E Aerospace, Inc., a global manufacturer of commercial aircraft products. Craft makes trays, tables, doors, seat legs and other parts for B/E, a Tier I company that sells to Boeing and Airbus.

“They take all the liability, and mark up our product when they sell it to the big guys,” Rochholz says.

Craft is a Tier II supplier, using steel, aluminum, or other materials, cutting the specified features into the parts. They then assemble the various components into the trays or other pieces, supplying the subassembly that is sent off to B/E.

“We all have had roles in the success of this company,” Rochholz says. “What it takes is creativity and ingenuity. That’s how manufacturing can be successful. It’s important to keep manufacturing in the U.S. and not ship it all off-shore. The U.S. is blessed to have all three components of a strong economy; we make things, mine things and grow things. Other countries are missing one or more of these essential ingredients in success.   U.S. companies are so intertwined and interrelated, so we can no longer think of having a corner on the market”.

No matter which industry they supply, the motto is the same, Rochholz says.

Dick Haines displays an airplane lunch tray that Craft Precision manufactures.

“Any number of companies can buy a machine and make parts, but we stress quality, a fair price and on-time delivery,” he says.

Rochholz is one of the newest members of the company, having accepted the job four years ago as head of production, quality and customer service.

There are now 25 employees and Steve Sutton, Lloyd’s son, accepted the leadership of the business when his father died of a heart attack in 2012.

New Owners Take Over Pre-School Learning Center

Christi Hill and Katie Richardson, new owners of Little Bulldog Learning Center, with three of their charges.

By Debbie Laure

There’s a bright, new, red and white sign reading “Little Bulldogs Learning Center” at 308 W. Prairie Street in Vicksburg.

In December, Christi Hill and Katie Richardson purchased the daycare and learning center formerly known as Child’s Play from Rebecca DeLaBarre and Sandy Idema who had opened it in May, 1995.

Hill, a Vicksburg native and mother of two, is pursuing her early education degree. She has been a nanny and worked two years with Lori Hardy in both the preschool and Sunday school programs at the United Methodist Church.

Hill has always wanted a big family and she thinks the children at Little Bulldogs have become just that.

Richardson, a mother of two who lives in Oshtemo, has always wanted to work with children and that desire has finally come true.  She spent 20 years as a dental hygienist and office manager and is currently in the process of obtaining her CDA certification.

Other than the new owners, the center’s staff and programs have remained the same with Martha Sweet-Phelps as director.

For 17 years, Sweet-Phelps has loved the children, using her master’s in teaching to set curriculum, working closely with everyone involved to create the best programs possible with the “Creative Curriculum” as a basis.  In this curriculum, the children move freely to stations which provide a sensory learning experience. All parts of the day are based on a theme right down to the fun snacks.

A typical day at the center starts 6:30 a.m. with children arriving until preschool starts at 8:30.  Miss Elania, who is certified with an early education degree, begins with the literacy lesson. Then, there is a learn-through-play activity such as art, a yummy snack, fun with journals which is calendars and weather. Then, students move outside, weather permitting. Sometimes outside time is in the fenced play yard or an adventure in the local village.

At 11:30, preschool ends and then it’s lunch and rest time.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, the BenJamin team comes and there’s more fun with learning by music with lots of instruments to play.  More activities are scheduled throughout the afternoon and then a wrap-up at 6:30 p.m. when the center closes.

Parents are encouraged to participate with the Little Bulldogs, but it is not expected as work schedules may not allow it.

Ages for the preschool are 33 months to 5 years and the daycare is 6 weeks to 12 years.

This summer there will be the usual preschool and day care but they are also offering Kids’ Club.  This will be for kindergartners through 12 years of age, who will have fun theme days such as Bike Day, Science Day, Fishing Day and a favorite – Mud Day.

Hill and Richardson are excited about their new adventure, providing a safe and creative place for learning and fun. And parents will feel great that they are leaving their children in such a secure and loving environment.

Key Blooms to Open for Season, April 21

Andrew Kiebloom and Randy VanGiessen, display yards and yards of pansies they are preparing to ship to stores in the southern United States.

By Sue Moore

For those in the Vicksburg area who love to garden, Key Blooms, 11034 S. Sprinkle Road, just three miles from downtown, will open for the season on Saturday, April 21.

Key Blooms grows most of their stock in the large hoop houses behind the retail area. They take great care with all of their plants, according to Randy VanGiessen, retail manager.

The greenhouse is fully automated with drip irrigation for the baskets with all the growing information on computer programs that tell them the exact amount of fertilizer a particular plant will need and how much water to give it at any time.

“We can’t grow it all, I tell people,” says VanGiessen, “but we try to carry it all so there is a great variety to sell here in the store. My job is to decide the different varieties, listen to what people want and read up on what is new and different so we have it available.”

Retail is about 20 percent of the total operation, with the major portion of the business devoted to wholesale through brokers. In February, they begin shipping cold weather plants such as pansies and ranunculus to Texas and right now are loading trucks for Missouri and surrounding states.

Key Blooms owners, Andrew and Mary Kieboom, from whom the name Key Blooms was derived, takes charge of the 18,000 to 20,000 beautiful baskets the greenhouse is well known for producing. The trick is to figure out when the plants will be sold by, then back up to the number of weeks it takes to produce the plants, and have them ready during the intense period of time in the various states for planting.

In Michigan, the retail operation is only about 10 weeks long from early May to mid-June.

“I’m always stressed when I hear the weather report in the month of May, as rain, heat, and cold, all affect whether this will be a good year or not,” says VanGiessen.

Kieboom, who had worked at Wenke’s in Comstock, purchased this small retail operation in 1996 from Emmanuel Snook, jumping at the opportunity to grow his own quality bedding plants, perennials, vegetables, and ornamentals. Since then, he has been expanding the operation significantly.

When VanGiessen came on board in 2002, the retail side grew significantly with most customers coming from within a 10 to 15 miles radius. However, they do have customers from as far away as Elkhart, IN and sometimes even Chicago, IL, VanGiessen says.

“We will see customers drive up from the Chicago area, load their cars or trucks to the extreme because the prices they experience at home are at least a third higher,” he says.

The owners have been very generous to the Heritage and Pantry gardens in Vicksburg. They have donated hundreds of flats of flowers and vegetables since the community gardens have been in existence. This goes a long way toward feeding people at South County Community Services, where much of the produce ends up each week, says Danna Downing, the executive director.