Remembering the top 10 stories of 2011

By Daily News • Last Updated 12:27 am on Saturday, December 31, 2011

The death of Fred Meijer, who is pictured here in a visit to the Montcalm County 4-H Fairgrounds, was this year’s top story.

1. Death of Fred Meijer

Fred Meijer meant a lot to Greenville and Greenville meant a lot to Fred Meijer.
The community outpouring in the wake of his death on Nov. 25 ranks as 2011’s top local news story in The Daily News.
Meijer’s father, Hendrik Meijer, founded the family’s namesake retail conglomerate in Greenville in 1934 as a modest local grocery at Lafayette and Charles streets.
Together, Fred and Hendrik Meijer launched a chain of one-stop shopping supercenters in the Grand Rapids area. After Hendrik retired, Fred expanded the chain to include 196 supercenters in five Midwest states.
Fred and his wife, Lena, amassed a fortune estimated in the billions of dollars along the way. They weren’t shy about giving it away.
They are best known for their philanthropy in giving to the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids Township.
Meijer’s name also appears on a network of recreational trails across West Michigan, including the Fred Meijer Flat River Trail in Greenville, Fred Meijer Heartland in Montcalm and Gratiot counties and the yet-to-be-built Fred Meijer River Valley Trail in Montcalm and Ionia counties.
Meijer was honored as a Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champion by the National Rails to Trails Conservancy earlier this year.
“Fred was truly a leader who did take his visions and make them reality,” said local trail supporter Carolyn Kane of Vestaburg, who accepted the award on Meijer’s behalf in Washington, D.C.
Locally, Meijer also gave significant sums of money to Spectrum Health’s United Hospital in Greenville and Kelsey Hospital in Lakeview.
Former Greenville Mayor Lloyd Walker credited Meijer with helping make the city into what it is today. He said Meijer contributed his talents and resources in plenty of ways out of the public eye.
“There are a lot of things in Greenville that wouldn’t be here without Fred Meijer,” Walker said. “He did probably more for Greenville than any single person has ever done.”
News of Meijer’s death the day after Thanksgiving drew a massive outpouring of support across West Michigan. Thousands of people commented on social media outlets and local news websites, honoring Meijer for the ways he changed the face of West Michigan.
Many friends and associates said most people wouldn’t know Meijer was a multimillionaire just by meeting him on the street. They said Meijer was just as humble and grounded in retirement as he was growing up on Greenville’s north side.
“Just call me Fred” was a frequent response Meijer gave to anyone who tried to call him Mr. Meijer.
Friends are remembering Meijer for his boundless wit and trademark grin.
“He was a really joyful man,” said author Larry tenHarmsel, a longtime friend of the Meijers. “It’s hard to imagine he’s gone.”
An estimated 5,000 people said goodbye to Meijer during a public visitation at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park on Nov. 30. The family hosted a private funeral service at Sunshine Community Church on Dec. 1.
Meijer was buried in the Michigan’s Family Farm exhibit at Frederik Meijer Gardens.

2. Recreational trails
This year has been an exciting year for walkers, bikers and joggers in Greenville and Montcalm County. Two recreational trails were completed encircling the city of Greenville and linking Greenville to Alma.
The Fred Meijer Heartland Trail is a privately acquired, developed and maintained rails to trails project that totals about 42 miles
The Heartland Trail was officially opened on Oct. 15 with a number of ribbon cuttings held throughout the county.
The Fred Meijer Flat River Trail was completed in June. The trail makes a complete circle around the city, totaling about eight miles in length.
The Heartland Trail project has not gone without controversy, however.
In March, the Friends of the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail group sued a Montcalm Township family, Ray and Joann Christensen and their son, Joe Christensen, after nearly 100 trees were cut down along the trail on the Christensen property.
The Christensen family agreed to avoid the land and to avoid cutting down any more trees for the time being. The parties are scheduled for a trial in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids in April to argue how wide the trail’s property is across the Christensen’s land and who owns the trees.
Landowners along the yet-to-be-built Fred Meijer River Valley Trail from Greenville to Lowell won a key ruling in their quest to obtain a financial reimbursement from the federal government.
A judge ruled the federal Surface Transportation Board illegally “took” property from the landowners by allowing the trail to be built. The former railroad bed should have been given to the landowners along it rather than allowed to be sold for a trail.
The landowners and the government will be attempting to determine the amount of the financial compensation in 2012.

3. Belding history
This year may be remembered best by Belding as the year the city put its foot down to save history.
A new historic district was established, which will help save the century-old Gibson Building and its iconic clock tower.
The historic district includes buildings from 105 through 302 E. Main St., which includes the Gibson Building and the Belrockton Community Center at 108 Hanover St.
The effort to establish the district began in the fall of 2010, soon after Swedish appliance manufacturer Electrolux purchased the Gibson Building in downtown Belding and announced plans to tear down the entire facility.
The company claims the building is a hazard and an eyesore. Electrolux offered to preserve parts of the building so the clock tower could be rebuilt elsewhere.
The Silk City Preservation Society, which sprang up to save the building and support the historic district, claims it’s a priceless piece of Belding’s heritage.
The city completed the lengthy process of establishing the historic district and approved continuing a moratorium on demolishing buildings in the historic district.
Electrolux filed a lawsuit against the city in June, asking for a restraining order to stop Belding from enacting a historic district.
In July, Mecosta County 46th Circuit Court Judge Scott P. Hill-Kennedy denied Electrolux’s motion. In response, Electrolux filed another motion arguing Belding had not followed the legal process for enacting a demolition moratorium.
Hill-Kennedy again ruled against Electrolux in August, stopping the company’s plans to demolish the Gibson Building. He issued an opinion upholding the city of Belding’s demolition moratorium in the downtown area while it continued the process of establishing a historic district.
The historic district will require Electrolux to obtain approval from the historic commission to complete the demolition, although appeals are available through the state if its permit application is denied.
Electrolux is expected to file an application with the historic district commission to demolish all the buildings on the site. The commission tentatively is planning to meet on March 1 to discuss that application and another from the city.

4. Violent crimes in Greenville
November was a traumatic month in Greenville.
Huntington Bank was robbed at gunpoint on Nov. 9.
A man was shot at the Flat River Inn & Suites on Nov. 12.
A robber made off with valuables from Huch’s Fine Jewelry on Nov. 29.
All three crimes remain unsolved.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is in charge of the bank robbery investigation. All they have to go on is a description of the suspect — a white male about 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, wearing light jeans, a black and white plaid jacket, a blue glove and a gray glove and a blue ski mask with a winter hat that covered his ears.
Three days after the bank robbery, a Grand Rapids man was shot shortly after midnight in a room with three other Grand Rapids residents at the Flat River Inn & Suites. A fifth person apparently came to the door, opened fire, then fled the scene.
Frederick Princeton Neal, 26, sustained critical injuries, but survived the shooting.
A man entered Huch’s Jewelry Store and asked to look at some items before distracting employees and grabbing an undisclosed amount of jewelry and fleeing out the back door. Police do not believe the man had a weapon.
The jewelry store suspect is described as a man in his 20s, about 5-foot-11-inches and 200 pounds. He had dark hair and two-day facial hair growth and was wearing a black Under Armour hat with a white logo, a red hooded sweatshirt and a dark-colored jacket.

5. Summer of crime
Montcalm County residents were victimized by a rash of summer thefts in 2011.
The Montcalm County Sheriff’s Office responded to 60 breaking and entering complaints from June through August, plus numerous larcenies.
The Michigan State Police responded to 40 breaking and entering complaints from June through August, plus numerous larcenies.
And that’s not even counting breaking and entering and larceny crimes handled by police in Belding, Greenville, Lakeview, Howard City and other small towns.
The criminals ranged in age from 14 to 52 and were local or from surrounding areas. They broke into locked and unlocked businesses, homes and vehicles in the city and in rural areas. They stole cash, CDs, cigarettes, jewelry, guns, gaming equipment and even vehicles.
Some crimes involved breaking into homes while residents were inside, leaving many community members concerned. The Daily News wrote a story in response to people’s fears, titled “Can We Shoot Them? Residents Ready To Defend Themselves Against Larceny Intruders.”
The thefts began to subside by autumn. A majority of the crimes resulted in arrests and convictions.
Sheriff’s officials and Michigan State Police credited other local and surrounding law enforcement agencies with helping solve the crimes.

6. Black Field closes, new stadium takes shape
After going through the process of figuring out ways to restore the historic Black Field in Greenville, Greenville Public Schools (GPS) made the decision to build a new field.
Black Field will still be used for events, such as Rocket Football. High school sports will be played on the field being built at the high school, which will be called Legacy Field.
In February, the Board of Education voted to place the bond proposal on the May ballot, which resulted in the voters showing their support for the bond. The proposal asked voters to allow the district to borrow $14.57 million.
The bond will pay for several projects in the school district, $6.5 million of which will be for the new football stadium. Besides the stadium, projects include other athletics upgrades, an enlarged high school cafeteria, technology upgrades, improved security measures, traffic flow improvements, aesthetic upgrades and the potential of adding air conditioning.
Superintendent Pete Haines said the project is progressing on schedule. The good weather this fall and winter has helped. Crews are working to get the new press box at the stadium weather tight.
“All indications are that we will be in this facility in plenty of time to host our neighbors from Belding in August,” Haines said.

7. Belding school construction
Construction and renovations at Belding Area Schools hit full speed in 2011.
Work on a $600,000 expansion to Woodview Elementary School was completed.
An $18 million expansion and renovation at Belding High School, the largest part of the $38.8 million project that voters approved in February 2010, has steadily taken shape over the course of the year.
A state-of-the-art new renovated science wing was completed at the end of summer. Each of the five science classrooms was expanded and equipped with document cameras, smart slates and ceiling speakers.
Meanwhile, a new auditorium and gymnasium being added to the east side of the school began to take shape. After a groundbreaking in May, construction crews built the shell of the new facilities.
The gymnasium will seat about 2,200 to 2,400 spectators in a horseshoe shape on three sides of the arena and will include a new weight room and indoor jogging track.
The auditorium will seat 500 people and will include all of the modern acoustics, lighting, sound and stage control systems available.
Both are expected to be completed in 2011, allowing renovations to move forward on existing parts of the building. A more inviting front facade and expanded student commons area will be the centerpieces of that part of the project.
The existing auditorium will be transformed into a new welcome center for visitors, main office and expanded student commons area when the new auditorium is complete.
The current main office area will be reconstructed into a main hallway through the high school, going from the west side of the building (the current main entrance) to the east (where the main entrance for the new gym and auditorium will be).
Many of those renovations will be ongoing after school starts next September, meaning the main office area and commons may be unusable for students and staff. The high school work is slated to be complete in Jaunuary 2013.
Administrators also announced changes to the bond project in November. The Administration Building will not receive about $1 million of upgrades as originally planned and will be closed in 2013, with staff there moving to offices in other buildings.

8. Montcalm Township turmoil
Montcalm Township had another rough year filled with twists and turns, but ended the year on a high note.
Voters elected Supervisor Michael Adams in February to take over for Jim Heimbecker, who voters recalled in November 2010. Adams received 279 out of 438 votes cast.
At the time, many expressed concerns over court-appointed special master Craig Rolfe, who was hired to oversee former township treasurer Phyllis Shilling.
Many were concerned with how much the township was required to pay Rolfe. He received $7,000 in payment for two weeks of work at one point.
Halfway through the year, Rolfe released a report critical of Shilling. He believed Shilling should be removed from office.
Although Rolfe was unsuccessful, township residents spoke their minds in November recalling Shilling after former township Supervisor Bob Lewis organized a recall effort.
During the recall, the township received a letter for the Michigan Department of Treasury stating an audit would take place at the end of October. The board is still awaiting results from the audit.
In April, Trustee Bill Rasmussen resigned from the township board with a one-sentence email addressed to the board. In May, the board appointed Rick Rought as a trustee to replace Rasmussen.
In December the township board appointed Rose Hyde as the new treasurer. She is running unopposed in a February special election to retain the position until November, when she would have to run for a full four-year term.
After December’s township meeting, a number of residents commented on how smoothly the meeting went with no fighting or bickering.

9. New fairgrounds open
After more than a year of construction, the 76th annual Montcalm County 4-H Fair settled into its new home this year on Peck Road just north of Greenville.
The old fairgrounds on Hillcrest Street in Greenville offered only 17 acres of space for fair festivities. The new location on Peck Road has 65 acres of land for future fairs.
Construction and improvements on the new fairgrounds are expected to continue throughout the next decade. But fairgoers celebrated in a larger space allowing more attractions than in previous years.
With an increase of 40 percent in attendance, fairground officials deemed this years fair at the new location a success.
The new fairgrounds featured 131 campsites that are double the size of campsites at the old fairgrounds.
Two 55-stall horse barns were completed in time for the fair this year, along with the new covered livestock arena. The arena is four times the size of the size of the old show arena, with space for spectator bleachers to be protected from the elements.
The small-animal barn and multi-purpose livestock barn were also completed for this year’s fair.
A grandstand was completed, but it is more of an arena with portable bleachers around it. A full-size grandstand structure will be completed later when funding is available.
More facilities will be constructed as the money comes in.
It will cost about $100,000 to install power and water service at each campsite, or $250,000 to complete the entire campground with a bath house, but funds just weren’t available to offer such services at this year’s fair.
Fairgoers had to use water spigots and portable toilets, creating a more rustic camping experience than most campers were used to at the old fairgrounds.
The new fairgrounds in its entirety is expected to cost about $3 million to $3.5 million to build completely. Only about $700,000 of work has been completed so far.
Fundraising efforts are also in place to continue to raise money for the new fairgrounds.
Montcalm Community College purchased the old Hillcrest Street fairgrounds in 2010 and continued planning an expanded Michigan Technical Education Center (M-TEC).

10. Spectrum Health United Hospital grows
Spectrum Health United Hospital announced a $9.61 million expansion in April designed to help serve the community better.
The project will include doubling the space and reconfiguring the Emergency Department, installing a new CT scanner, developing a specialized women’s diagnostic imaging center, renovating the entire imaging area and renovating space for cardiovascular care.
“I think what we’re doing is not only improving care today, but setting up for increased care in the future,” said former hospital President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Bonis.
In October, Tina Freese-Decker was named President of Spectrum Health United Memorial after being named the interim at the beginning of July.
Mid-October marked the official groundbreaking for the project, which is well under way. Crews currently are erecting the steel frame for the Emergency Department and working on rough construction in the cardiovascular area.

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