Category Archives: Vicksburg

The Mill Seeks Transformational Resolution

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Chris Moore in the white shirt, was surrounded by well-wishers for the mill revitalization project during a tour in September that featured a visit by Congressman Fred Upton. Across the front row from left to right are Isabelle Newman, County Commissioner Julie Rogers, Jackie Koney, Moore, Upton, Kalamazoo County Treasurer Mary Balkema, Rudy Callen partially hidden, and Jim Shaw.

By Jef Rietsma

Plans for the redevelopment of the Vicksburg mill are moving forward: Representatives of the project have recently appeared before three local governing bodies.

In addition, a tour last month of the former mill included U.S. Rep Fred Upton. The Congressman spoke highly of the proposed development and threw his support behind developer Chris Moore.

During the Vicksburg Village Council’s Sept. 11 meeting, project representatives Jackie Koney and Lisa Phillips said they plan to apply to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to be a transformational brownfield project. This designation allows for sales tax and other personal-property tax capture under a bill signed by the governor in June.

“Our application will be stronger if we have the support of our local units of government, which include the village of Vicksburg and Schoolcraft Township,” Koney said. “We are not asking for money, just the council’s endorsement.”

They told village council members that they want to access the new incentives that work for brownfield properties in the state of Michigan. The Kalamazoo County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority is the mill’s authorizing agent for its application.

The plan is to begin construction in the spring, depending upon approvals and funding.
Koney said the economic impact is substantial to the village, the township and the county.

Council member Gail Reisterer said the project seems well planned. The vote passed unanimously.

A presentation before Schoolcraft Township officials took place Sept. 12.

At that meeting, Koney and Phillips said 80 acres of the project are located in Schoolcraft Township. The property was used as overflow for wastewater when the mill was operational. Koney said the piece of land is important because it is connected to the infrastructure and adds to the revitalization.

Supervisor Don Ulsh asked about the transformational aspect of the project and how the demonstration area on the 80 acres ties into the plan.

Koney and Phillips said it may be dedicated to growing demonstration plots of hops and barley, as well as boardwalks and nature trails. Ultimately, it would hook up to a proposed bike trail.

“It will celebrate the wetlands, the rookery, fruit orchards, and possibly a cranberry bog which are all in the long-term plan,” Koney said. “Also, we plan to have a strong connection to the downtown as a strong downtown is critical to the success of the development.”

The board approved the resolution unanimously.

During the August 28 tour with Upton, Moore said he is excited to bring positive activity back to the mill.

“At a projected cost of $50 to $60 million, this is a major brownfield redevelopment. A mixture of funding sources is typical nationwide of such projects.” Moore said. “The community will benefit from the economic activity … it will provide jobs with good wages.”

Moore said the impact on the region is great, far beyond bringing the building itself back, and predicted the redeveloped mill will be a tourist destination. Upton said he supports the Community Development Block Grant concept and tax credits for historic places, which can revitalize rural and urban areas.

“Chris, you have a great group here with your vision and I want to help,” he said. “I want to watch it grow but I also know you can’t do it on your own.”

The Mill Becomes a Personal Project for Vicksburg Teens

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Patrick Carr, age 13; Congressman Upton; Zach Carr, age 15; wrote a letter of support to Upton, urging him to come and visit the Mill before it’s renovation gets underway. Here is a portion of their letter: “If the Mill would be redone and reworked to what the plan is, it will incentivize young people like us to stay and contribute. It would keep us here to work for the community, help it expand and grow. Make Vicksburg one of the few, maybe the only place, with something like this, and we wouldn’t be able to find it anywhere else, there would be no incentive for us to leave. More young people would stay and perpetuate this town, keep it running and alive.”

By Jef Rietsma

An unlikely alliance has formed between backers of a plan to redevelop the Vicksburg paper mill and a group of local teens curious about its past and future.

John Kern, a key member of the group behind the undertaking, said an opportunity arose over the summer that allowed the improbable partnership to form. Kern and his wife, Jackie Koney, played an integral role in fostering the alliance.

The teenagers, including 13-year-old Patrick Carr, went on to learn more about the mill’s past and share their findings with anyone interested.

Carr and his pals showed off their knowledge during a tour of the property Sept. 7. Kern and others updated adult participants with details about the multi-million-dollar plan to rejuvenate the mill into a destination site, including dining and retail components. Meanwhile, Carr, his 15-year-old brother and 17-year-old cousin provided a historical perspective about the century-old mill before the walk-through.

The three made a flawless presentation and thoroughly answered questions posed by some members of the 24-person group.

Kern said they have taken on the role of youth ambassadors for the redevelopment and future of the mill. Their research included assistance from the Vicksburg Historical Society.

“Jackie Koney met with them first and she thought a good starting point would be to take them through the mill, get a better feel for the place,” Kern said. “So, together, we eventually took them on a tour. It was pretty easy to see their level of interest in the place increase the longer we were there and the more they saw.”

“I give credit to these young men, who approached us about wanting to learn more about the place,” he said.

Kern said that level of appreciation and newfound respect for the mill meant a lot, especially coming from teens when some of their peers are more intrigued with trespassing and vandalism than a history lesson.

“They have really taken ownership of the building … not too long ago there was some damage done, a few windows broken, and it was pretty clear they took it personally. They were really bothered by that” – as was Kern.

Eventually, Kern said, the teens came up with the idea of writing a letter to U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, whose backing could potentially benefit the project’s redevelopment. Kern said the proposed letter of support was a savvy idea, as there was no harm in letting Upton know the project is endorsed by area residents of all ages, including teenagers.
Carr said he was most impressed by the workmanship of the building as well as its volume.

“I knew it was an old building, like maybe it was built in the ‘60s, but when I found out it was more than 100 years old, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I also thought it was pretty interesting that so much of the work was done by hand.”

Carr said he doesn’t prefer public speaking in front of classmates, but was less nervous in front of the people involved in the Sept. 7 walk-through. He explained the phenomenon as “kind of weird.”

“I mean, we knew John and Jackie, but it was just different talking about the mill in front of them and a bunch of strangers,” Carr said. “It was neat to learn about the history of the place. I didn’t know anything in Vicksburg was that old.”

Don Ulsh’s Fond Memories of Working at the Mill

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Don Ulsh, at right, conducts a meeting at the Schoolcraft Township hall.

By Jef Rietsma

Listening to Don Ulsh recall his days and his numerous jobs with Simpson Paper, it’s hard to believe nearly two decades have passed since he last worked at the Vicksburg-based plant.

Considering the clarity with which he remembered his two stints with the company, it would be reasonable to assume he was there as recently as a few months ago.

“The places and people that were so important at a certain time in your life, especially at a time you recall with great fondness, you tend to remember those days with a little more affection and a little more clarity,” Ulsh said. “I get quite emotional when I talk about the mill to any great extent because it was so much a part of my life. And not just me but it was for other people, too.”

The 76-year-old Ulsh had two runs at the mill. His first was June 1959 to November 1971, a period during which he held a number of titles and performed a variety of duties, including quality-control technician, assistant to the production superintendent and personnel assistant. At the time, the company was known as Lee Paper.

Ulsh remembers cursing his later-in-the-year birthday, which forced him to work on a farm as a 17-year-old the summer he graduated from Vicksburg High School. Meanwhile, a number of his 18-year-old classmates secured employment at the mill.

He turned 18 in 1959, toward the end of his freshman year in college. Ulsh wound up landing a job that summer and as an incentive for him to finish school, the paper company paid for his college education. He took advantage of the offer, attending Western Michigan University for a year and a half before he was transferred to the West Coast.

“It didn’t take long for me to feel like part of the family … not long at all,” he said. “The mill was never publicly owned, it had always been a private company, and they treated you like family because it was owned by one family. I never had to ask for a raise; they would always take care of you.”

Ulsh said friends he made with people during his tenure at Lee Paper, then Simpson, are people with whom he is still close to today. His job as Schoolcraft Township supervisor provides its share of unpredictable but joyful reunions.

“It’s not unusual for some of the people who were there when I was mill manager to come into the township office and pay their taxes, and it’s always a good feeling. It’s usually pretty nostalgic,” he said.

Ulsh was a general sales manager at Plainwell Paper Co. when it was bought by the Vicksburg plant, then known as Simpson Lee. He returned to the Vicksburg mill in December 1987 and eventually became its manager in 1991, a duty that continued through 1996. One dubious job-related task to which he was assigned was showing the mill to prospective buyers. He recalled that the mill was considered a “hot commodity, it was a profitable organization and that’s why a lot of people wanted to buy it.”

He was offered work as director of international sales when Fox River Paper bought the operation in 1996. It was an opportunity he accepted, but Ulsh would only stay on board a year.

“I decided to move on to greener pastures; it just wasn’t the same,” Ulsh said, declining to elaborate. The mill eventually closed in 2002.

Ulsh went on to manage a paper company in the Detroit area, where he was working when he found out the Vicksburg plant was closing. He said it was “humming along great” at the time he left, and he was amazed at the news.

Eight years after he left Fox River and three years after the mill was shuttered, Ulsh was contacted by a company that ultimately hired him to help it conduct an environmental assessment of the property. He said it needed someone intimately familiar with the facility who could walk a team of people through the site and explain what kind of work went on in various locations.

Though he hadn’t been in the mill since his last day as a Fox River employee, Ulsh said he was initially excited about seeing the property again. His zeal, however, quickly turned to dismay not long after stepping foot on the site.

“I was just sick when I went through there … until that moment I had a picture in my mind of what the place had looked like, and to see it in such poor condition was just sad,” he said. “I went to see where my old office was and the ceiling was hanging down, it was just trashed because people had been coming in there and nothing had been done to the place. I was saddened and absolutely sick about it.”

Ulsh is part of the team helping to shape the redevelopment of the century-old mill and its property. The plan, backed by Vicksburg native Chris Moore, is an ambitious proposal that will focus initially on a brewpub and eventually incorporate other components.

The plan, he said, is exciting, in part because Moore aims to keep as much machinery and signage as he can, and incorporate it all into a quasi-museum that pays homage to the mill and its glory days.

Ulsh, who has some relics to offer, called the group an ad-hoc advisory team and is pleased to play a role in the mill’s rebirth. The plan, in fact, typically dominates the conversation when he and other former employees meet monthly at the Antique Kitchen in Portage.

“We never run out of things to talk about despite how many years we’ve been meeting like that; I’d say a dozen, maybe 15 years,” he said. “We have a lot of laughs and we share a lot of good memories.”

Ulsh proudly recalls how the mill set the standard for quality product. He said Hallmark was a major customer, as it preferred a quality of paper the mill produced exclusively for the greeting-card company.

He said the type of paper is called Impressions, and Ulsh said he smiles when he has occasion to leaf through greeting cards and sees the Impressions trademark on the back of a Hallmark card. “Somebody else is making it now, obviously,” he said. “But we developed that Impressions paper and I see it now as a legacy of the Vicksburg mill.”

Hidden Vicksburg Features Tours of the Mill

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Visitors during the informational tour of the mill in September walk through the former machine room.

By Sue Moore

“You can’t hide 400,000 square feet,” say advertisements for Hidden Vicksburg Secrets of the Past, to be held from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Oct 7. That’s because The Mill at 300 West Highway Street is going to be open for public tours for the first time in several decades.

Hidden Vicksburg was sponsored by the Downtown Development Authority in its first run last year. It has expanded to include The Mill property which is only two blocks from S. Main Street. Two other new but very old buildings will be open for the first time as part of Hidden Vicksburg at 101 and 103 East Prairie Street.

The idea of peeking inside some of these old buildings is to show what condition they are in on the second floors and open them to the curious with guided tours offered by community volunteers and the business owners and representatives. The Vicksburg Historical Society is helping by providing the history of each building for tour guests.

The Mill has been featured in several recent issues of the South County News. It is slated to become a brewery, craft food and beverage place, a museum, a beer production facility and an outdoor beer garden. It has been gutted of the paper machinery and cleaned up considerably by workers from Frederick Construction. It is beginning to show its potential for the big projects it has in store for the community.

The East Prairie Street properties on the tour have over 100 years of history, most recently Unique Furnishings before that it was Boers Dress Shop and next door, the Doris Lee Sweet Shop. The upstairs of 101 E. Prairie has been gutted and taken down to the studs but still houses some debris from previous owners.

The 103 E. Prairie building has livable apartments upstairs. Downstairs, it is being remodeled to house the Cultural Arts Center. The owner of the two buildings has been given a façade grant and loan from the DDA to fix up the exterior. The plan is to have that accomplished this fall.

Other properties on the tour include buildings at 101, 107, 118, 120, 123, 200, 202 S. Main Street and the Old El at 301 S. Kalamazoo. With this many properties to tour, it could make a nice day trip according to Fawn Callen, the event chairperson.

Tickets are on sale at $10 each with children under five free, at the Vicksburg Art Center, 101 E. Prairie and vicksburgdda.com/hidden-vicksburg. They will be available the day of the event at the Community Center at 101 S. Main Street.

Food Demo at Vicksburg Farmers’ Market

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Madi and Ella Rohrstaff, daughters of Jeff Rohrstaff the golf pro at Angels Crossing, with Joe Tsui, the resident chef at Creekside Grill when he did a cooking demo at the Vicksburg Farmers’ Market in 2016.

By Sue Moore

The last day of the Vicksburg Farmers’ Market will feature a cooking demonstration by celebrity chef Joe Tsui of the Creekside Grille at Angels Crossing on Friday, October 6.

He will be bringing recipes and cooking variations of summer and fall squash along with pork tenderloin, which is a great fall food too. Samples will be handed out while Tsui is showing the best ways to make squash palatable to young and old customers. He will also have coupons for dining at Creekside Grille.

The market is open from 2-6 p.m. on Friday with the cooking demo beginning as the market gets underway, according to Carol Meyer-Niedzwiecki. Fall foods that are abundantly available at the last week the market will be open in 2017 include squash, tomatoes, green beans, plums, pears and apples.

It’s been a big year for the market with two craft vendor days and another cooking demo presented by the head chef and his prize student, Taiylor Baird, who is from Vicksburg and studies at the Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s culinary arts school. For the past 22 weeks, local farmers and producers have been selling fresh vegetables, fruit and baked goods to between 400 to 800 customers per week. “It has been a great season,” Meyer-Niedzwiecki said. “We have had lots of occasional vendors too with unusual products that have sold very well.”

Kramer Talks Baseball for Vicksburg Historical Society

KramerRon-Sociology_150_0Ron Kramer, Western Michigan University sociology professor and a lifetime baseball fan, will hold forth on the social history of baseball, race relations and labor issues down through the years of major league play. His talk is especially timely as the World Series draws near. His presentation is part of the Vicksburg Historical Society’s speakers’ series at the Vicksburg Community Center on Tuesday, October 17 at 7 p.m. The public is encouraged to attend.

Vicksburg Boil Water Edict

By Sue Moore

A boil-water alert for Vicksburg village residents went out on Friday, September 8 at 11:48 a.m. Residents and businesses were cleared to drink village water on Tuesday, Sept. 13, according to Village Manager Jim Mallery.

This type of notice has only gone out once before during the 25 years that Ken Schippers has been employed by the village as head of the Department of Public Works, village manager and in semi-retirement as the person responsible testing water quality. He routinely takes samples at five locations and sends them to a lab for sampling and reports the results to the state’s Department of Environment Quality (DEQ). A sample taken on Sept. 6 came back with a positive presence of coliform, a bacteria associated with animals’ intestinal tracts. Schippers took more samples on Thursday and Friday. They tested positive even though the village had started adding chlorine to the system at noon on Friday. Vicksburg does not chlorinate its water unless an emergency like this occurs.

Notification went out to schools, day care facilities, Kalamazoo Emergency Management and local businesses. A press release went out at 1:33 p.m. Sept. 8 to radio stations, TV and MLive. A notice was placed on the village’s Facebook page. Village officials were present at the high school Tailgate community celebration that Friday to answer questions. “Every tool in the bag was utilized,” Mallery told the Village Council at its Monday, Sept. 11 meeting.

Still there were some village residents who were unaware of the edict and unhappy about how they found out. “We are exploring additional ways to contact and reach out to our citizens,” Mallery said.

Schippers is investigating where the contamination might have occurred. In the meantime, the water will be treated for 30 days until Schippers and the DEQ are positive the coliform is completely abated.

Trustee Ron Smith encouraged the village to consider better signage downtown. He showed concern about the walkability and bicycling at three corners where it isn’t clear who has the right of way. The speed limit throughout the village is 25 mph, Mallery said. “My car goes 25 mph without even putting my foot on the gas,” Trustee Gail Reisterer said. Mallery agreed to look at options that might make intersections at Washington and S. Main, Kalamazoo and E. Prairie and Michigan and W. Prairie safer.

A community policing forum was announced for Monday, Oct. 16 at 6 p.m. at the District Library where citizens can attend and discuss concerns with the new police chief, Scott Sanderson.