Category Archives: Government

Major 131 reconstruction coming to Schoolcraft

Look for construction signs on and near US-131 next year.

By Rob Peterson

Major reconstruction of US-131 through Schoolcraft is planned during 2022, if state finances permit. Village staff described the project to council members at a December meeting.

The project will begin at M219/Marcellus Road and run through town and up to the U Avenue/Shaver Road intersection north of the village limits. The project is intended to improve traffic flow and safety. Key elements include left turn signals at Lyon Street and a redesign of the way traffic enters 131 from Shaver Road.

The signal at 131 and U Avenue has already been updated as part of the project.

Other planned safety improvements include an extension of sidewalks and a reconstruction of the railroad intersection near South Street; a narrowing of some driveways leading on to the highway; and elimination of the southbound merge lane near U Avenue.

Council members asked Village Manager Cheri Lutz about providing windbreaks to prevent snow drifting across the highway. Lutz indicated that she would discuss the matter at her next meeting with Michigan Department of Transportation officials.

Since the center of 131 will be torn up, council member Kirk Bergland suggested it would be good timing to install a sewer main, if that project is approved.

Another report to the council came from Mike Presta from the engineering firm of Prein & Newhoff. He presented information about funds from the State of Michigan under a new Drinking Water Asset Management Grant program.

The grant will provide money for the Village to assess its water supply lines to determine where lead pipes exist, and to put together a plan for replacing them. The maximum grant for a community the size of Schoolcraft is $1 million, and it does not require a local match. The council authorized the staff to apply for the grant.

In other action, the council approved a “bonus” to staff amounting to 1.5% of each staff member’s salary. It also set the village garage sale dates for May 21 and 22, 2021.

The council also set aside approximately $2,000 to support Eagles Nest, an organization that provides food for families in need. In 2020, the organization provided food for 70 children in the Schoolcraft area, according to a report from Jill Strake. Village support comes in the form of quarterly payments that cover utilities.

Staff reported on the matching gift card program. The council purchased gift cards to area businesses and sold them to the public for half price. The purpose was to drive sales at local businesses at the end of a difficult year.

The Village sold 47 of the 66 available gift cards on the first day, selling out their inventory of cards from seven local businesses. Staff was grateful to the support that residents provided to local merchants.

Lutz reported that there is an opening on the Planning Commission. This is a vital position to fill, as the Village is in the final phase of a rezoning process. She asked any resident interested to contact her.

Christmas Card Lane to return in 2021

Alex Lee, Vicksburg’s Director of Community Engagement, displays the 2020 Christmas Card Lane.

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg officials are declaring the inaugural Christmas Card Lane a success.

In the absence of a parade and other Christmas traditions the village had to put on hold this year, Christmas Card Lane proved to be a hit – and a solid backup option.

Alex Lee, Vicksburg’s Director of Community Engagement, said there’s no question in his mind that he witnessed the start of a new Vicksburg tradition.

“Now that people have seen Christmas Card Lane, they understand what it involves, how it’s presented and what it’s all about. We now have a long list of people and businesses who want to be a part of this in 2021,” Lee said.

Set up in the Vicksburg Historic Village, Christmas Card Lane featured 34 “cards” that, in most cases, are mounted on 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood. Sponsors were able to share their name and a design on their card.

Christmas Card Lane started Dec. 5 and was to continue through the first weekend in January. The cards could be viewed at any time and were set up in a drive-thru format.

Lee was part of the village’s three-person Christmas Committee, whose members also featured John DeBault and Natasha Hanichen. Lee said the feedback he’s seen via the village’s Facebook page has been overwhelmingly positive.

“When we started, the plan was a piece of plywood, everybody paints it, and then we put it up,” Lee said. “Feedback we started getting was some people didn’t have the time or the talent to paint, and they were asking if there was a quicker way to do this.”

Lee found The Sign Company of Kalamazoo, which introduced him to an aluminum composite panel with a high-density corrugated core called Alumilite. Images can be applied to the surface, which retains color that does not run or fade.

The panels were secured by a pipe bracket to metal poles and illuminated by spotlights.

Lee said the project was a great partnership between the village and the Vicksburg Historical Society. He said Christmas Card Lane would not have been possible without the cooperation of the Historical Society.

“I liked how they would turn on the lights inside the old buildings … it was a nice touch that just added something to the experience,” Lee said.

He said the village will store the panels during the offseason, though a few companies have asked to have theirs back for year-round display.

Lee added that DPW officials placed a traffic counter at the entrance and the total number of cars that passed through will be tallied when the display is taken down.

With more card entries expected next year, Lee said there’s a chance the cards will have to be displayed on both sides of the drive rather than along the passenger’s side as they were this season.

“We couldn’t be happier … the reaction has been tremendous and we look forward to another strong lineup in next year’s display,” Lee said.

Business survivability grants available to businesses

By Jef Rietsma

The village of Vicksburg and the Vicksburg Community Foundation have partnered to distribute $40,000 to local businesses impacted by restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 virus.

Village Manager Jim Mallery at a Dec.21 meeting told council members about a business survivability grant, which creates financial assistance for businesses that meet eligibility criteria. Mallery said about two dozen potentially qualifying business have been made aware of the opportunity.

“We have made contact with businesses in the village that fit the (qualifying) categories and have held two Zoom calls educating them,” Mallery said. Grant-request forms were mailed to prospective recipients Dec. 22.

Village president Tim Frisbie called the program “an awesome opportunity” and said Vicksburg is fortunate to have such a strong and generous foundation. Mallery agreed and said the village also has strong owners who demonstrated great selflessness.

“I was pleasantly pleased at the character of our business community because I had three of the businesses that certainly met the criteria, all independent of one another, and spoke how their businesses had not been drastically impacted because of the amount of take-out food they’ve provided,” Mallery said. “And they wanted to see that money redistributed to those that would need it more.”

Prospective recipients have until Jan. 13 to return an application. Village council members will determine the beneficiaries during the council’s Jan. 18 meeting.

In other action, council members approved accepting an application from Jaspare’s Pizza to be a part of the village’s Social District. The concept allows participating businesses to offer outdoor seating and patrons are allowed to carry drinks in specially designated cups from one location to another.

The council expects to approve an application from Distant Whistle in January. If its application is approved by the village, five downtown businesses will comprise the Social District. Application approval by the village is a step forward in the process, as Mallery said the five businesses now must be approved by the state.

Mallery said the state has already approved the village resolution to have a social district.

“Most municipalities have found that submitting all (business) applications together are better,” he said. “I anticipate approval from the state by the end of January and we could start the formality of the Social District after that.”

In a separate matter, council members approved the third and fourth phases of the Allen Edwin residential development west of 22nd Street and south of U Avenue. Together, the phases will include development of 56 single-family homes.

Walk-throughs replace Vicksburg holiday parade

By Jef Rietsma

A beloved centerpiece to Vicksburg’s annual holiday season will be missing this year. With great reluctance, members of the village council voted Oct. 19 to cancel the 2020 Christmas parade.

Alex Lee, director of community engagement, delivered the news toward the conclusion of the meeting.

“The Christmas in the Village Committee has been meeting since late August. We have tried everything possible to delay an unpopular but necessary decision,” he said. “We tried to wait out the pandemic … with COVID-19 cases rising in the state and in the county, and in the shadow of some of our bigger cities in the county canceling holiday events, here we are with our backs against the wall in terms of time. The Christmas in the Village Committee feels for those reasons and for the safety of our citizens, we will be forced to cancel the Christmas parade and many of the activities usually associated with Christmas in the village.”

But there was a silver lining. Lee said the committee has assembled a series of events that will still celebrate the holiday season. He elaborated on what is being called “an outside-in Christmas in the Village.”

“What that means is we want families to enjoy activities in the safety of their vehicles or walking with family outside using masks and social distancing,” he added. “To that end, the committee has adopted an approach that we hope to kick off Dec. 5 and run through new year’s day.”

The alternate activities include a thorough decoration of the downtown district. Lee said float designers will be encouraged to devote their time and expertise to spruce up parks and public spaces. Also, a Christmas Card Lane concept will be recreated, running through the Historic Village. Prizes based on decorating will be awarded, Lee said.

In addition, the committee has discussed luminaries and would be willing to support neighborhoods or organizations willing to take on the task, he continued.

Council member Tim Frisbie said he understood the reasons why the parade is canceled but struggled to come to terms with its absence. Nonetheless, Frisbie said he supports the work of Lee and the committee.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who say, ‘It’s my choice to go downtown if I want, not a bureaucrat telling me I can’t go downtown and socialize with friends and family,” Frisbie said. “I understand from a village prospective but from a personal prospective, I don’t buy into it … if you’re afraid of a crowd, don’t come.”

Council member Gail Reisterer said the village has an obligation to responsibility. She said a parade would inevitably draw a large crowd and the village should not be behind an event that will encourage a large assembly.

Fellow council member Julie Merrill said she lives downtown and will miss the parade. Still, for the public’s safety, canceling the parade was a prudent course of action, she noted.

“We’ll just disperse and have fun in different ways,” Merrill said.

The council was unanimous in acknowledging Lee and the committee for their dedication to planning what they have arranged for Christmas 2020 in Vicksburg.

In other business, the status of a three-year contract renewal with the company managing Angel’s Crossing Golf Course was discussed as an agenda item. Village manager Jim Mallery said municipal officials and Hudsonville-based Renaissance Golf Management Group entered into a management agreement in March 2018.

He commended Renaissance’s Tom Ham and the staff, saying their work has exceeded expectations. Mallery said the years before the management agreement were marred by public complaints related to the conditions of the course, staff inattention and the concern about taxpayer dollars used to support the course.

“I’m happy to report that the village of Vicksburg has not used any general fund tax money to operate in any capacity Angel’s Crossing Golf Course since August 2016,” he said. “We developed and implemented a plan for the golf course, and have relentlessly reviewed the plan each of the past two years.”

He said Renaissance has not raised its management fees from the original proposal. Its fee for the three-year contract, however, will be $123,000 annually, representing a 6.9% increase from the original pact, Mallery said.

Mallery said the soonest the village could sell the golf course, if it felt the need to, is October 2023.

Also, Mallery said police chief Scott Sanderson in November will provide an update to the council regarding the department’s recent incorporation of patrol-car and body cameras.

Schoolcraft studies existing septic systems

An aerial view of a large sewage treatment plant.

By Rob Peterson

Just 61% of septic systems in the Village of Schoolcraft are known to meet requirements of a new septic system, village council members were told by two county representatives at an October meeting.

Vern Johnson and Lucas Pols from the county Health and Community Services joined the virtual meeting to present the information they have at the county level.

They said they do not have current records for over 100 properties in the village, partly because the microfiche created in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s did not capture the most relevant information. Address changes over time can complicate the records as well.

More recent records may also be inaccurate because homeowners are not required to report when a system is pumped, nor are they required to use the county’s services when a home inspection is completed.

A well-built and properly maintained system, according to Johnson, could last 30 years or more, though 20 years would be more typical.

But the primary concern, according to Johnson, is that 61%. Many homes are serviced by drywells, which do not treat the wastewater as completely as a drain field or trench. “We are learning more every day about how to improve sewage treatment systems for homes and businesses,” said Johnson.

When a drywell fails, the mess that it creates is not as alarming as the potential for contamination of the drinking water supply. Much of the village is in a Wellhead Protection Area, which protects the groundwater that serves the local municipal water system.

“Drywells and septic systems must be designed so that waste is fully treated in order to protect our drinking water supply,” said Johnson. He stated that this can become difficult when working on smaller lots in the village.

When an existing system fails, Johnson and Pols stated that they work with homeowners to create a solution in locations where an appropriate septic system cannot be installed. The worst-case scenario is an in-ground holding tank that requires routine pumping by a licensed hauler. But that is only a short-term solution.

The Village will continue to research the issue as it considers whether to install sewer lines. The South County Sewer Authority, who could provide sewage treatment for the Village, continues to meet virtually.

In other news, the Village Council reviewed a draft audit from the South County Fire Authority. The only material deficiency was caused by the fact that auditors created the financial statements rather than having an independent accountant create them. This is something council members felt could be remedied easily by hiring another firm to complete this task.

Village Manager Cheri Lutz indicated that she will be meeting with the village manager from Vicksburg to learn more about the Mill at Vicksburg project. This $80 million project will encompass over 400,000 square feet of commercial space and will impact the entire region. Lutz’s goal is to be proactive so that Schoolcraft can benefit from the development.

Lutz received approval from the council to implement a program to assist local merchants during the COVID quarantine. Her proposal is to sell gift cards that would be redeemable at local businesses. When a customer purchases a $25 gift card, the Village will match that with an additional $25 gift card to the same business.

Funds for the program will come from a $1,000 allocation in the promotions budget. The Village will promote the program via social media.

Vicksburg discusses alcohol on public properties

Outdoor seating at downtown Vicksburg’s Village Hide-A-Way.

By Rob Peterson

New state legislation that would allow alcoholic drinks to be served on public property was described to the Vicksburg Village Council by Manager Jim Mallery.

The legislation, which became law July 1, gives a municipality the authority to create a social district where patrons are allowed to consume drinks purchased from a local bar, restaurant or brewery. The law is intended to provide more space for social distancing and help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Vicksburg could, for example, designate a site downtown “commons area” where patrons could carry alcoholic drinks from an establishment into a space shared with other businesses. Currently, each establishment must have its own fenced-off outdoor space for serving alcohol.

The law requires that the municipality have a management and maintenance plan, including hours of operation and clearly marked signage that defines the common area. The legislation is open as to how large the area may be, but it must be adjacent to at least two restaurants, bars or breweries.

The drinks must be in plastic containers clearly marked with both the name of the common area and the establishment that sold the drink. The drinks may not leave the common area, nor are they allowed in another restaurant, bar or brewery.

Director of Community Engagement Alex Lee indicated that the staff is researching other communities that have created similar districts. “When we have carefully reviewed all these inputs, have business support, and have a workable plan, we will present to the council for additional review and input,” he said.

In other action, the Village Council approved event requests at the Pavilion including Harvest Fest, which is currently still scheduled for Sunday, September 27.

Mallery updated the Council on the sale of excess village-owned property on TU Avenue. The property was originally purchased by the village as part of a larger tract for the trail extension, but only a portion of the original tract was required for the trail.

The Council supported staff in its efforts to apply for federal funds as part of the CARES economic assistance act. Mallery indicated that he is still looking into allowable uses of the funds, but its purpose is to assist with payroll for essential employees such as police and Department of Public Works staff.

Mallery also updated the Council on the new public parking lot on Kalamazoo Avenue, adjacent to the post office. The Village has installed solar lights and has plans for bike racks and “free parking” signs. There will be a ribbon cutting, but no date has been set.

Council member Adams commented on the need for two additional Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee members. He reminded attendees that July 22 was the last day one can apply to run for office in the fall election.

Council members took a moment to remember active community member Bob Merrill, who passed away recently.

Attendee Jackie Koney expressed gratitude to Village staff for allowing local businesses to adapt to social distance requirements due to Covid-19. Staff provided “curbside pickup” locations for businesses and made arrangements for village-owned picnic tables to be used in outdoor service areas.

Schoolcraft resets village clean-up day to Sept. 19

By Max Hutchison

The Schoolcraft Village Council at a July meeting rescheduled the village-wide Clean Up Day previously scheduled for June, to Saturday, September 19th, from 8 a.m.-noon. Residents can bring items to Clay Street across from the Ken Krum Recreation Center.

Details regarding what items residents may drop off can be found on the Village’s website or in the Summer 2020 newsletter.

The council’s meeting, its first since the lockdown in March, was its first-ever online session via Zoom. All members were present and visible in the conferencing app, along with several resident attendees. Also present was Johnathan Ballentine from the village’s information technology staff. While the virtual meeting was conducted largely in the same manner as the council’s in-person meetings, council members cast their votes using the Zoom app’s internal electronic voting tool.

Two budget items kicked off the meeting’s agenda. An amendment to the budget transferred funds to balance the budget. Revenues were higher than expected for the 2020 fiscal year, allowing the Village to shift funds without dipping into its general fund. “Really, we did pretty good,” said Finance Director Tammy Young. The Council also opted out of a state law which sets limits on contributions to employee medical benefit plans.

In an attempt to ensure the timeliness of the Village’s newsletter, the Council approved an expedited method for reviewing President Keith Gunnett’s standing article. Previously, the article was not subject to the Council’s oversight; the Council began reviewing it in October, 2019 when the viewpoints of council members diverged on the necessity, process, and costs associated with approving a village sanitary sewer system. While the process has since involved a month-long review by Council members, the new process will allow Village Manager Cheri Lutz to approve Gunnett’s article on shorter notice, raising issues with the full Council only when she identifies a potential issue.

Rounding out the agenda, Trustee John Stodola made known his desire to keep the Village active in the County’s Disaster Mitigation Plan with the pandemic in mind. “Things are profoundly different now than they were six months ago when we last got together,” Stodola commented. Lutz informed the Council that she had been in contact with the County, and a representative would soon be attending a village meeting to give the Council an update on the Disaster Mitigation Plan.

While the sanitary sewer project was not listed as an agenda item, it was briefly discussed in the council’s committee reports. Stodola remarked that a Wightman engineering consultant will be visiting the Council in the coming months to discuss an alternate proposal for the sewer plan. While Stodola was unsure of the details, he said he believes that the new plan will involve a sewer line running down Route 131 toward Kalamazoo. A longtime Wightman employee, Alan Smaka, who has advised the Village in the past, has since left the engineering firm to work as a project consultant for the South County Sewer Authority. Stodola also confirmed what had previously been discussed at Council meetings, that Vicksburg would not be joining Schoolcraft on a sewer project. Stodola did note, however, that Lockport Township has expressed interest in joining the project and would be discussing the possibility with the South County Sewer Authority going forward.

Local and State Races, 911 Tax on Aug. 4 Primary Ballot

South Kalamazoo county residents will nominate partisan candidates for federal, state, county and township offices in the August 4 primary.

Candidates in contested primary races were asked to submit a 200-word statement about themselves and their positions along with a photo.

Residents on Aug. 4 will also decide a ballot issue to pay for a central public safety communication system and 911 service system.

Polls will open at 7 a.m., close at 8 p.m.

The ballot question:

“For the purpose of funding a central public safety communication system and 9-1-1 service system, shall the constitutional limitation upon the total amount of taxes which may be assessed in one (1) year upon all property within the County of Kalamazoo, Michigan, be increased in an amount up to but not to exceed 0.65 mills ($0.65 on each $1,000 of taxable value) for a period of ten (10) years (2020 – 2029 inclusive), to be distributed to the Kalamazoo County Consolidated Dispatch Authority for countywide 9-1-1 facilities, functions and services as provided in the Kalamazoo County Emergency 9-1-1 Service System Plan? If approved and levied in full, this millage would raise an estimated $6,111,513 in the first calendar year of its levy based on taxable value.”

GOP Senate Primary

John James.

Republicans Bob Carr and John James are competing in Michigan’s Aug. 4 U.S. Senate primary to oppose incumbent Democrat Gary Peters in the Nov. 3 election. The six-year term pays $174,000 annually. Carr did not submit a biography and statement.

John James has lived his life placing service before self.  As a combat veteran, businessman, husband and father, John believes Michigan deserves leadership dedicated to protecting our freedoms for the next generation. 

As a teenager, John decided to serve his country in the U.S Army. He graduated from West Point and went on to become a Ranger-qualified aviation officer. John served with distinction in Operation Iraqi Freedom where he logged over 750 combat flight hours, leading two Apache helicopter platoons.

After eight years of service to the nation, John James returned to Detroit to work in the family business, James Group International. As president, John grew the company into a major trading partner with Michigan’s auto industry.

John’s main priorities when elected to the U.S. Senate:

• Reforms to our healthcare policy that protect pre-existing conditions and at-risk populations without passing along undue burdens to patients, providers and businesses.

• Reducing barriers to entry for entrepreneurs who want to create jobs in their community.

• Champion national security policies that secure our positioning as leaders in the global marketplace.

John and his wife, Liz, have made their family home in Farmington Hills, where they are raising their three boys.  John looks forward to serving his country and protecting our Constitutional freedoms as a member of the U.S. Senate.

Two in GOP 6th District Race

In the 6th Congressional District, incumbent Fred Upton of St. Joseph is facing Elena Oelke, also of St. Joseph, for the Republican nomination in the Aug. 4 primary. Jon Hoadley and Jen Richardson, both of Kalamazoo, are seeking the Democratic nomination for the post in the primary. The winners of those elections will face off in the Nov. 3 election for a two-year term. The post pays $174,000 annually. The 6th Congressional District includes counties of Kalamazoo, Allegan, Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Van Buren.

Elena Oelke: Successful businesswoman, real estate broker, educator, international business background, multi-lingual, top of class magna cum laude master’s degree graduate, brings top-notch skills to represent Michigan’s Sixth District in U.S. Congress, running to be your voice in D.C. Stands to protect U.S. Constitution, our rights, our freedom and America’s future. My motto: “I get things done for you. No excuses.”

Congressman Fred Upton – known more commonly as “Fred” – is a sincere, hardworking leader who listens to all perspectives and achieves results for folks here in Southwest Michigan. In the midst of these challenging times, Fred has helped rush coronavirus relief to southwest Michigan families, is working to protect Michigan seniors, and is fighting in Washington to help get our economy on the road to recovery. Meanwhile, Fred has also continued his efforts to support our extraordinary veterans, protect our country’s national defense, preserve our Great Lakes, and increase opportunities for our agriculture industry. In D.C. and here at home, Fred is known for his work ethic and has consistently been named one of the “Top 25 Hardest Working Members of Congress.” He delivers results for the folks he represents – always has and always will. Fred is a graduate of the University of Michigan and remains a die-hard Wolverines and Cubs fan. He and his wife of 30 years, Amey, are the proud parents of two children and just had their first grandchild earlier this year.