Monthly Archives: July 2014

Vicksburg’s Rudy Callen Plays in Irish Rock Band

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Rudy Callen with his homemade electric luthier he plays in the Irish rock band Belfast Gin.

By Nathan Czochara

Vicksburg resident Rudy Callen is a board member of Vicksburg Community Schools, Vicksburg Community Foundation, and the Vicksburg Community Schools Foundation, yet others know him as “Rudeman,” electric guitarist of the Irish rock band Belfast Gin.

A guitar player all his life, Callen focused mainly on classic and heavy rock. Then, he was called to Belfast Gin to help the band “rock it up a bit,” he said.

Even though Callen wasn’t familiar with playing traditional Irish music, he has enjoyed the transition from classic rock to this genre.

“I was surprised at the complexity of the music, and how deep it runs for some people,” he said.

Belfast Gin has been playing traditional Irish/Celtic music around the state for almost a decade. Besides Callen, the band consists of vocalist Lori Laing; flutist Richard Koontz; bagpipe player Jenni Koontz; drummer Aaron Miller; bassist Patrick Solomon; and Natalie Beversluis. The band specializes in blending American genres such as rock, blues and jazz into traditional Irish and Celtic music.

“We are like a 200 to 300 year-old cover band,” said Laing. “The music we play is like a layered onion of traditional and modern, blues. All these different backgrounds come together to really make a unique sound.”

The band recorded its first album at Calllen’s Vicksburg home and at times when the weather is good, the band takes a ride on Callen’s pontoon boat for a practice session.

“We call it pontoon practice,” said Callen.

Belfast Gin has made a mark in the last couple of years on the festival circuit and playing huge shows for St. Patty’s day. Playing in Southwest Michigan and as far as Grand Marias, MI, the band has garnered a major following. Callen and Laing say the music has a lot to do with their success, but also the energy and chemistry at shows makes an impact.

“We have fun up there; we are little bit silly. We are your everyman band,” said Laing.

The band is amazed and grateful for the passion their fans give back to them, said Laing, who is amazed at how loyal and dedicated their fans are.

Callen recalls a fan from Plainwell who drove seven hours to Lake Superior just to hear Belfast Gin play.

Callen says the crowd really helps the band make shows enjoyable and rewarding.

“It’s nice to see some of the people you know,” said Callen. “It helps you be more relaxed.”

Even though Callen enjoys seeing familiar faces in the crowd, he also relishes gaining new recruits to the Belfast Gin Nation.

“Even if you are not into Irish music or an Irish music lover, it’s fun,” he said. “So come listen, enjoy, and dance.”

Wally’s Vapor Shop Opens in Schoolcraft

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Ted Emmons shows the e-cigarette selection in Wally’s Vapor Shop in Schoolcraft.

By Nathan M. Czochara

A new smoke shop opened in Schoolcraft but it is not your average tobacco store. There’s no tobacco at all because Wally’s Vapor Shop, 403 N. Grand St., sells e-cigarettes.

Owners and Vicksburg residents, Ted and Devon Emmans, opened the shop in early April. The idea that came to Ted when he was doing computer IT work at Kalamazoo Vapor Shop. The owner discussed opening a homemade e-liquid shop in the Schoolcraft area, so Ted decided to open his own vapor shop in conjunction with the Kalamazoo group.

So, now Wally’s Vapor Shop is providing customers with e-cigarettes and accessories, but don’t expect to find the $9 devices you see in your local gas station, said Ted, who describes those as “cheap, knock-off hunks of junk.”

“Battery-life doesn’t last long; the devices themselves do not last long, and actual flavor and stuff they use are not very good. They taste terrible,” said Ted. “We don’t know what goes in their [e-cigarettes]. I know exactly what goes in our liquid; they are not saying what goes into theirs.”

The price at Wally’s for the liquids is $7.41, which Ted says is equal smoking time to seven packs of regular cigarettes. The e-liquids come in several flavors and levels of nicotine content. The hardware itself ranges from $25 to between $300 and $400, said Ted. The price variations are due to the battery life and the ability to change voltage, since certain e-liquids vaporize at different temperatures. While there is an initial investment in e-cigarettes, the cost benefits can be seen right away, said Ted.

“We usually tell customers they will save 50 to 60 bucks a week,” he said. “My mom was a huge smoker. She was looking to do something different. So I bought one for her and she really liked it. We figured out the first month she saved over $200. That’s when I thought this is really something.”

Tobacco chewers have an option as well.

“We are the only ones in Southwest Michigan to carry an herbal chew with nicotine in it,” said Ted.

Ted and Devon feel they are helping the community with Wally’s Vapor Shop by providing a service that can lead to a healthier community.

“We really just want to serve people in my home area and take care of the people,” said Ted.

The Torch is Passed at Aaron’s Music Shop

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Steve Cowles in front of Aaron’s Music Service in Vicksburg.

By Nathan M. Czochara

Steve Cowles has taken over Aaron’s Music Service, 113 S. Main St., the business started by his father, Aaron Cowles, who died in December, 2013.

Steve hopes to step in with the same passion for his work as his father.

“We have the same sense of humor,” said Steve. “There’s no change in poor quality of jokes in this shop. No change.”

Aaron opened the shop in 1984, focusing on making and repairing stringed instruments, said Steve.

But his father’s love of music and stringed instruments began at an early age, probably when he won his first mandolin from a family friend, Hugh “Quack” Quackenbush. Aaron was six when Quackenbush awarded Aaron the mandolin for winning a song-playing contest in which he competed against his siblings.

“It wasn’t much of a song, but Quack gave him that mandolin,” said Steven.

In his late teens, Aaron began playing the guitar and then started working at the Kalamazoo Gibson guitar plant in 1962, said Steve. He began by doing just basic sanding and assembly work, but worked his way up to handcrafting Gibson’s renowned mandolins known as the Gibson F-5.

After 21 years at Gibson, he was laid off and then opened Aaron’s Music Service in 1984 on Prairie Street where Apple Knockers Ice Cream Parlor is now located.

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Aaron Cowles in earlier years in the workshop.

“My father was a practical guy,” said Steve. “It wasn’t the shop but rather what he did. He was a guitarist and guitar maker. He enjoyed the process. He didn’t just do it because he was good at it; he did it because it was fun to do.”

Enjoying playing the guitar as well as making them, he shared his skills with the community, Steve said. He would play in church on Sunday, sometimes with a local group such as the Wasepi Gospel Bluegrass singers. He would help young customer tune their guitars free of charge.

Steve recalled the time an older man, who attended the same church as Aaron, could not afford a guitar but wanted to learn to play. So, Aaron made the man a guitar.

“He did that kind of thing for a lot of people,” said Steve. “He worked hard, and was good at what he did, he never aimed to get rich. He was very generous.”

Aaron’s passion still remained true even after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 2013, said Steve. Aaron would still go to the shop or play with his band when he felt up to it.

Even close to his death, Aaron was still in love with the instruments that shaped his life.

“I came up while he was in hospice care towards the end,” said Steve. “He was still with it but wouldn’t talk much. So I picked up the guitar and played it for him. I asked if he wanted me to quit and he said ‘No, keep playing.’ I thought that was pretty cool.”

After his father’s death, Steve moved back to Michigan from Washington, D.C. His main focus, he said, is to retain the high quality and passion for the work that his father had.

Today, when customers walk into the shop, they can still smell the wood dust and guitar lacquer, reminders of the work that Aaron did there for 30 years. On the walls are photos of Aaron receiving employee awards at the Gibson plant. There’s even a photo of him with guitar legend, Chet Atkins.

Mandolin frames and unfinished guitars are strewn around the old cast-iron Gibson equipment which Aaron bought from the plant after it closed in 1984.

Surrounded by these reminders of his father, Steve is now pushing himself to produce custom guitars like the ones his father made so well, and continue the tradition of what made Aaron’s Music Service so great.

“I doubt I’ll ever be good as my dad,” he said. “My vision is to keep on keeping on.”

Steve Cowles

Steve Cowles, new owner of Aaron’s Music Service, grew up in Vicksburg, graduating from Vicksburg High School in 1985. He then joined the Air Force, eventually being stationed in Texas, Germany, and Florida. Then, he worked for the U.S. government in the Washington D.C. area and Florida. Jobs ranged from working for the Department of State, to engineering, security officer, and computer support.

After being laid off by governmental cuts around the same time Aaron’s health was declining, Steve moved back to Michigan to take on the family business. Having learned the craft from an early age from his father and working on his own guitars, Cowles is carrying on his father’s tradition.

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Steve Cowles in his workshop.

Working alongside Steve is volunteer Ed Miller who became Aaron’s apprentice in 1992. After Aaron’s death, Miller kept the store going until Steve moved back to take over. He builds acoustic guitars and does other repair and assembly work. Although Miller isn’t paid for his work, he does it for the lifelong joy of guitar making, he said.

The Bus Stop is Home to the Electric Jug Band

bus stop 2By Nathan Czochara

Turn down 27th Street in rural Vicksburg and you will find The Bus Stop, a unique campground/music venue which has been around for five years.

It began when owner Ted “Washtub” McNett and his jam band, the Electric Jug Band, wanted a place to practice. One night as he and the band were hanging out on his land, they had the idea that it would be a good place for a stage, McNett said.

So, McNett and former band bassist, Alex Johnston, built the stage which has a 1958 GMC Vicksburg school bus serving as a backdrop and as a green room for visiting bands.

McNett purchased the bus for $10, he said. At the time, he worked for the Vicksburg Community Schools as a groundskeeper and maintenance man when he saw the bus at the bus depot. Knowing the school wanted to get rid of it, he offered to take it off their hands, and thus, giving the venue its name.

Enhancing the woodland and do-it-yourself atmosphere are gathering spots featuring old couches along with makeshift signs such as “Where the Music Begins,” and “Stay and Play.”

“It really is magical,” said McNett. “It’s a party for all music people, pure enjoyment of the music. That’s what it is all about.”

Over the years, the Bus Stop has gained steam with local bands and others coming to play the free-of-charge venue, said McNett. Audiences have come from as far as Holland and Detroit to be a part of the festivities.

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Ted McNett plays washboard and bass in the Electric Jug Band.

Besides regular shows, McNett hosts two showcases, one in early summer and another in late summer. Promoted by word of mouth, the festivals have brought in as many as 400 people who camp out for the event, he said.

Bands which have played the festivals include Brandon Mann, Danny Castle, the Kalamazoo River Monsters, Alec Johnston, and Lansing’s Fried Egg Nebula.

The Bus Stop has no plans for slowing down, said McNett. He and his band appreciate their home base and feel this is just the beginning.

Electric Jug Band bassist, Matt Fisher, also has high expectations for the venue.

“I think it will get mythical in proportions later on,” he said. “You always wish for more Bus Stops, but we will be glad of what we had.”

Electric Jug Band

The Electric Jug Band is as unique as the venue they call home. The local six-piece jam band crosses genres and styles of music, even in the middle of songs. Folk, progressive, jazz, blues, funk, punk and rock all blend in the band’s work.

“The sound is really hard to pigeonhole,” said Mike Fischer, bassist.

The band was formed after an on-the-spot jam session at Aaron’s Music Service during Vicksburg’s Old Car Festival in 2008. Guitarist and singer Bryan Wither was walking by the shop as washtub and folk instrument aficionado, Ted McNett, was playing with late owner Aaron Cowles. The music caught his attention.

“I heard some bluegrassy music coming out of the music store so I had to go check it out,” said Withers. “I had never seen a washtub bass for real and we got to talking to [Ted] and the idea for the band was formed.

Electric Jug Band is working on an album they hope to release in the spring of 2015.

Until then, check out the band at Electricjugband.com which has videos and dates for upcoming shows.

AVB Gets Nod to Build Condos at Angels Crossing

avb 4By Sue Moore

After five years of building an alliance with one of the top design-build construction companies in southwest Michigan, the Vicksburg Village Council passed a resolution to allow the necessary infrastructure improvements so that construction of a condominium community to be known as Bridgeview at Angels Crossing can begin.

The property, now owned by Kalamazoo County State Bank (KCSB), will be developed with American Village Builders (AVB), a 40 year-old design-build firm in Portage, as the contractor.

In addition, the Village has approved funding for the needed infrastructure improvements. Funding for the project will come from the approved sale of bonds that are expected to be sold and funded on or before July 15.

The infrastructure improvements will include a new entry road into the Angels Crossing Golf Course and Bridgeview Condominiums, paving, berms, tree plantings, new lighting for the entry, streets, and parking lots, and a new cul-de-sac, all on the village owned property.   All of the approved changes were reviewed by the village council as presented by Jack Gesmundo one of the Principals of AVB and Jim MacPhee, CEO of KCSB at Thursday’s (WHAT DATE? Saying Thursday doesn’t help because this comes out next week.) council meeting.

The total cost to the village will amount to $540,000 for the infrastructure, Ken Schippers, interim village manager told the council members. Based on data from Tracy Cross and Associates, a firm that has 40 plus years in the study of demographics, and trends, the estimated time frame to complete the sale of the new condos is approximately four years. The taxable value to the village could amount to somewhere near $12 million, with actual tax capture around $90,000 each year.

“This is a quality development that AVB has proposed,” said Bill Adams, village president, in recommending approval. “It fits into our growth plan for the village and may even help us with more money flowing into the Brownfield funds.”

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Jack Gesmundo of American Village Builders (AVB) shakes hands with Bill Adams, Vicksburg’s village president upon getting approval to move ahead with building condos at Angels Crossing. Jim McPhee, president & CEO of Kalamazoo County State Bank (KCSB) is pictured in the middle. The bank had an active role in putting the deal together which will enhance the property and enlarge the tax base in Vicksburg.

AVB and the village have worked out a separate agreement for further expansion of the project (phase II), with the village selling a separate piece of property it owns, originally planned for a small chapel. The agreed price for the parcel is $40,000 and will bring the actual net cost to $500,000. The name of the project will remain Bridgeview at Angels Crossing.

Gesmundo lauded the property’s potential, saying that AVB would not have been interested in building a project such as this, had it not been for the municipal ownership of the golf course. “You have an exceptional asset in Angels Crossing,” he said. “It’s very unusual for a town this size to have a top 50 golf course. It wouldn’t warrant a project of this scope, without the amenity of the golf course.”

(The Top 50 designation was given to the course by Golf Magazine and Golf Digest.)

As an incentive for prospective purchasers, the village donated three-year walking golf memberships to the first seven who purchase a condo, he said.

The road construction will begin immediately with the initial phase being the entry off of W Avenue, Schippers said. They want to create a “sense of arrival” with upgraded signage. They will add a   cul-de-sac and reconfigure the turnaround to separate the condo traffic from that headed toward the golf course.

KCSB has hired Gardner Management to oversee maintenance and manage the owners association.

Construction will begin this fall, and will be overseen by AVB as well. The first two unit condo will be completed in approximately five months.

Vicksburg DDA Makes Far Reaching Decisions

DDA Boundary Map 062514By Sue Moore

Two big steps forward were taken by the Vicksburg Downtown Development Authority (DDA) at its June meeting. The Board decided to hire McKenna Associates of Northville, MI, to prepare a downtown redevelopment and design plan at a cost of $17,000.

They also moved to extend Kathy Hoyle’s contract through March, 2015, so she can oversee the DDA projects

“We would be dead in the water without her [Hoyle’s] leadership,” said Mike Oswalt.

Hoyle had been on a six-month contract, funded by both the Vicksburg Foundation and the DDA. Hoyle had been pushing for a website devoted to DDA business and she received that approval as well. A company out of Spring Lake, MI, bid approximately $640, depending on the number of hours it would take to have a website up and running.

The design project is also on a fast track, with the first designs expected for the DDA’s August meeting. This will be doable according to Hoyle, since much of the work has already occurred through the strategic planning process that she instituted in March and April. McKenna Associates is familiar with the community because they were hired by the village planning commission to update its five-year plan for the entire village.

The major charge of the project is to:

•Determine the most appropriate design standards for the Village’s downtown.

•Develop guidelines to achieve the desired outcome for the downtown.

•Make pedestrian movement safe, comfortable, and enjoyable.

•Identify and define opportunities for new development/redevelopment in downtown Vicksburg.

McKenna will provide graphics that will “paint a picture” of the future of downtown Vicksburg including pedestrian areas, building facades, and potential redevelopment sites.

Their proposal says, “Infrastructure is a key element to a successful downtown. Parking, sidewalks, street trees, signage, pedestrian amenities, and many other items fall into this category.”

They also recognize the importance of effective marketing, on the success of a downtown plan. They will conduct a retail void analysis that will help the DDA identify opportunities for capturing retail, entertainment, and services for the downtown.

Expanding the boundaries of the DDA has been considered for several months. Hoyle presented a map showing how the DDA could be more effective with grant monies and other projects if both sides of the streets were included within the DDA on N. Main, W. Prairie, Washington St. and as far out to the entrance to the village on N. Richardson and W. Prairie. The process has been set in motion to expand the boundaries to get the approval of each unit of government that collects taxes from the designated properties. It will take at least two to three months to complete the process, according to Hoyle.

Concern was voiced over the Village Council voiding out the fund to fund transfers from the various village fund accounts. If this wasn’t done, it could amount to a charge either for or against the DDA funds to about $120,000.

“Nobody owes anybody anything,” Tracy Locey, village clerk, said. “No more guessing as to who owes whom. We just haven’t been able to close this circle yet.”

Added Hoyle, “The Board decided to wait and vote on approval until the next meeting after the auditors’ recommendations from the review process were made on cleaning up the past accounts.  Then we can finally get the accounts finalized for the next fiscal year with no outstanding balances owed to either party so we can move forward. The Board will have to vote to approve the auditors’ recommendations at the next meeting.”

“There isn’t much we can do about it,” Tanya DeLong, board president, said, “so let’s wipe the slate clean and move forward from here.”

Well Water Cleaning Deemed a Success for Village

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Randy Smith, Brady Township supervisor.

By Sue Moore

One of the two village deep water wells that serve nearly 3,000 residents, has recently been cleaned to allow increased production at an approximate cost of $30,000. The alternative would have been to look for another source of water at many times the cost of cleaning.

“This process has prolonged the life of the well for another ten years,” said Michael Williams, of Peerless Midwest, whose company was retained to refurbish the well. “This was a smart investment for the village. It was a gamble but we won,” he told the Vicksburg village council.

Steve Swigart of Michigan Township Services, who has been the building permit issuing officer for the village until a decision was made recently to hire another company, requested a reprieve from that decision. “I agree to accept the zoning enforcement and blight ordinance details for free in order to maintain my business with the village,” Swigart told the council. The decision was left to Ken Schippers, acting village manager to give Swigart six months to show what his company could do to improve services and take on this new responsibility. After that, he would either be retained permanently or the village would go elsewhere for these services, Schippers told the council.

The council discussed the cost overrun on Angels Crossing clubhouse of $550,000 that was budgeted to the $900,000 that was actually spent to build it. Funds for the overage apparently came out of other village accounts, they were told by Jenny McKillop, treasurer. It was her recommendation along with the audit firm, BDO to wipe the slate clean for 2014/15 on the transfer of interdepartmental funds.

A report on the potential of companies planning to expand in Leja Industrial Park was previewed for the council, since the land has been on the market since 2013. There is great potential, Bill Adams told the council for several of the current companies in the park to expand their operations.

Randy Smith, Brady Township supervisor, presented a long-awaited document from the South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority which updates the Articles of Incorporation that he said were developed fifteen years ago. “They haven’t kept up with the times, so the board has attempted to clean it up to make it reflect how we are operating today,” Smith said. “It is mostly clerical changes with the few substantive ones encompassing how the board of directors is constituted.”

All six taxing units of the authority are required to pass the changes, with all but one, having done so by July 1. They are Brady, Schoolcraft, Prairie Ronde, Townships and the villages of Schoolcraft and Vicksburg. Wakeshma Township’s board is set to vote on it at their July meeting he said.

President Bill Adams who sits on the fire authority board, said that they are looking at other opportunities to fund fire protection in south Kalamazoo County. A possible millage especially for police and fire, is one consideration. The concept is being kicked around, he said.

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Lee Adams takes the podium.

Lee Adams of the Kalamazoo County Brownfield Authority presented his work to the council on where the villages’ brownfield monies are and who is eligible to utilize them. The former paper mill has had a brownfield designation for parts of the property in the past. It is Adams recommendation to combine this with the other two village brownfields and let his department at the county level develop an overall plan for all three that exist now. A memo of understanding is being drawn up for the village’s brownfield committee to consider and bring to the council in the near future he said.