US-131 work set to resume in April

Sarah Fedders, MDOT project manager, talked about the 131 project.

By Jef Rietsma

Details of a two-year, three-phase reconstruction project centering on U.S. 131 were provided by Michigan Department of Transportation officials Oct. 19 in Schoolcraft.

The $57 million 13.5-mile project will start in April in St. Joseph County, continue in spring 2024 north of Schoolcraft to Shaver Road, and conclude in summer 2024 with work concentrated in the village of Schoolcraft.

MDOT’s project manager Sarah Fedders, who oversaw a two-hour public open house at Schoolcraft Municipal Complex, conceded Schoolcraft residents will have their patience tested in 2024. But, she noted, as with any construction project, the benefits will far outweigh the inconveniences once work has concluded.

“There will be a number of safety features, the most obvious will be development of several indirect left turns, also known as ‘Michigan lefts,’” she said. “North of Schoolcraft, the reconfiguration of Shaver Road and U.S. 131 will be another big component of this project.”

The work in Schoolcraft – a phase projected to start in July 2024 – will include a full rebuild of U.S. 131, an upgraded left-turn phase at the Lyons Street traffic signal, and a pedestrian lane to be added at the Eliza Street signal. Work in the village will stretch from the railroad crossing north to Lyons Street.

A detour will involve XY Avenue, South Eighth Street and West U Avenue.

Fedders said the first phase of work will begin in April near Three Rivers.

“The plan is to start at Rocky River and go up to XY Avenue in 2023,” she said, indicating that portion of the project will likely cover the full, April-through-November construction season. “Then, in 2024, go from XY up to Shaver Road. The reconstruction job in the village of Schoolcraft would then happen after July 4 in 2024.”

Fedders said the St. Joseph County portion will involve removal of a top layer to be replaced by a fresh surface. Drainage issues will be addressed and guardrail improvements made at various points.

She said an additional amount of work will be done at U.S. 131’s intersection with Wilbur Road/North Main Street. It, too, will feature Michigan-left turns.

Both northbound and southbound routes of U.S. 131 will be narrowed to one lane in each direction while the St. Joseph County portion of the work is performed, she added.

Fedders said because of the work zone’s length and heavy traffic volume of the route, the project could fairly be considered a major undertaking.

“It’s more than 13 miles long, so that brings it up a level, and it’s a two-season project,” she said. “Some people believe because it’s not on an interstate it’s not a major project, but because so many people will be impacted by the work, it definitely could be considered a major project.”

At the north end of the project, Shaver Road will be a right-turn-only onto northbound U.S. 131. Traffic wishing to head south onto U.S. 131 will have to turn onto a Michigan left, which will be controlled by a traffic signal.

Schoolcraft confronts county on passed-over grant

Commissioner John Gisler (in the red, white, and blue) addressed the village council’s questions.

By Rob Peterson

The Schoolcraft Village Council held two special meetings in October to discuss their frustration with the county’s process for awarding grants from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.

The village received none of the grant money. It hasn’t stopped trying.

Kalamazoo County received $51,485,963 in federal funds through ARPA, which is intended to assist in recovery efforts from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The county created subcommittees to review grant requests from local municipalities and organizations in six categories: Essential Worker Premium Pay, Negative Economic Impact, Provision for Government Services, Public Health, Services for Disproportionately Impacted Communities, and Water, Sewer, or Broadband. Of the $51 million, roughly $25 million was being granted to municipalities and organizations. The remainder was retained by the county.

Schoolcraft Village requested $14 million from the county: $10.5 million to install sewer lines and $3.5 million to replace lead-based water lines. The water-line replacement is an unfunded mandate from the State of Michigan.

The village invited Commissioner John Gisler, the county board of commissioners member representing parts of south Kalamazoo County, and the county administrator to a special meeting. Gisler attended. He indicated that the size of Schoolcraft’s request and its lack of local matching funds were the reasons that the grant request was denied.

Cheri Lutz, however, pointed out that other requests were approved without providing a local match.

“There was no indication that a match was required,” said a frustrated Lutz, “And no one called me to say that our application didn’t meet the requirements.”

When village council members questioned the process, Gisler replied “We were making it up as we went along. It was less transparent than it should have been.”

“Why didn’t the process stop when you realized that it wasn’t transparent?” asked council member Mike Rochholz. Gisler replied that there “seemed to be a sense of urgency” to the process, to which Rochholz answered, “There really wasn’t any process. It was negligent in how they allocated the funds.”

According to Gisler, the county paid $390,000 to a consultant to develop a process with a rubric for how applications would be selected.

“Do we have a report from the consultant on the process?” asked council member Kathy Mastenbrook. She said she has requested it through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“But I have yet to receive it,” answered Lutz.

“We didn’t have an administrator until May, and we were between finance directors,” explained Gisler, adding that the committees didn’t see the actual applications: A three-person administrative team reviewed the applications and put the information into a spreadsheet.

Gisler indicated that the county has $3 million left over because its consultant determined that some of the approved requests “wouldn’t pass muster with the feds.” He suggested that the village write a letter and request reconsideration.

Lutz has since attended county board Committee of the Whole meetings and expressed her dissatisfaction with the process to the board directly. She has requested reconsideration of their request, particularly the funds required to replace lead water service lines.

The county board has told her the request is under consideration.

“I’ll keep going back,” said Lutz. “I can be persistent.”

Vicksburg celebrates 150 years

Addyson Munoz, 8, of Vicksburg, took a turn at a paint station downtown Oct. 15 during the village’s sesquicentennial celebration.

By Jef Rietsma

The pinnacle of Vicksburg’s 150th anniversary lived up to the hype, as village officials confidently labeled the Oct. 15 event a success.

An estimated 2,000 people took part in the afternoon and evening celebration, which centered on closed-to-traffic South Main and East Prairie streets. The fanfare featured food trucks, live music, games and vendors.

Village President Tim Frisbie acknowledged he had the good fortune of holding the municipal title during such a milestone moment.

“It is an honor and what is most exciting about this is the recognition and accolades the town is getting from the federal government, the state and county commissioners,” Frisbie said. “As for what’s going on here today, I’m old enough to remember when Vicksburg had its centennial celebration and we wanted to make it as big and memorable as that.”

Frisbie said he is proud of the village, its staff and the residents who take pride in the community. Frisbie also singled out Village Manager Jim Mallery for getting the municipality heading in the right direction.

“Jim came in six years ago when we were a train wreck destined to go off the end of a bridge, but he turned things around and has us going down the right road now,” he said. “Planning, preparation, planning and more planning. The amount of planning required to get us where we are can’t be overstated.”

Organization of the village’s sesquicentennial celebration has been a team effort, though Frisbie conceded the lion’s share of work has come from Alex Lee, director of community engagement. Lee has played a role in creating a series of monthly events to commemorate the village’s 150-year anniversary. Another event overseen by Lee returns in December: Christmas Card Lane.

Meanwhile, attendees at the Oct. 15 celebration said they were aware in advance of the event and planned accordingly.

“We had a plan to be here, I’m glad we came; it’s really neat to be alive and here when Vicksburg turns 150 years old,” said Vicksburg resident Jason Phillips. “I like that we have safe neighborhoods, people are friendly, and you look around at all the people on the downtown streets right now and you have to love the community feel of Vicksburg.”

Michelle Thomas, a Texas Corners resident, said she had seen a number of online posts about the downtown celebration and was curious to see if it would be as fun as it sounded.

“I told my daughter we should go down, walk around and she bumped into a friend from school, so it has turned out to be a great night so far,” she said. “I love that Vicksburg really seems to go out of its way to create that small-town feel and tonight is a great example of that.”

Austin Junde and Vicksburg High School classmates Cole Morand and Jacob McGehee, were taking time to enjoy the comforts of Oswalt Park. Junde described the sandwich he ordered from Scott’s Pig Roast food truck.

“It’s called the Heart Attack – pulled pork, mac and cheese, and chicken tenders,” he said. “It falls apart and it’s real messy so you have to eat it with a fork.”

Junde said a few teachers have been discussing the fact 2022 is Vicksburg’s anniversary. He said the amount of history in the village is impressive — and proclaimed he will be in attendance at the village’s bicentennial celebration in 2072.

Vicksburg’s Christmas in the Village celebration is Dec. 10.