2012: The Year in Review (Photo Gallery)

By Daily News • Last Updated 11:47 am on Monday, December 31, 2012

Firefighters battle the blaze at Nelson’s Speed Shop during the early morning hours of June 22. — File photo

Cause of Nelson’s Speed Shop fire stilll unknown

Nelson’s Speed Shop is starting over for the second time in about 10 years after experiencing two devastating fires, leaving the owners with almost nothing.

Nelson’s Speed Shop has served the Greenville area for more than 40 years by selling snowmobiles, outdoor power equipment, ATVs, lawnmowers and more.

The business suffered its second fire during the early morning hours of June 22, leaving operations to run out of an office trailer in the parking lot while construction on its facility is under way.

About 75 firefighters from 11 departments fought the fire for nearly 10 hours at the shop, located at 4566 S. Greenville Road (M-91) in Montcalm Township. The fire started in the back of the business on the west side of the building.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) continues to investigate the fire. The cause has not yet been determined.

Another fire occurred on Sept. 17, 2001, destroying the previous building at the same location. Richard Crew and Stewart David Barron were convicted by a federal grand jury of arson and conspiracy to commit arson in that fire. Crew was sentenced to 84 months in prison, while Barron was sentenced to 63 months in prison. Both men were also ordered to pay about $4 million in restitution.

Thomas Klein, owner of Tom’s Cycle in St. Johns, was sentenced to five months in federal prison, two years of supervised release and five months of home confinement for misprision (knowledge/failure to report) of a federal arson involving that same fire. He was ordered to pay $500,000 in restitution.

Nelson’s Speed Shop was rebuilt about a year after the 2001 fire.

Construction on the third Nelson’s Speed Shop at the same location began this past fall. Owner Jack Nelson said the new facility will be small so it is easier to handle.

“We were hoping (to open) the middle of winter,” Nelson said. “If we open the end of February or the beginning of March we will be doing good.”

Nelson said the construction of the new building is going slower than he planned, but they are plugging away at the project fast as possible.

“The building is starting to take shape,” he said. “We will have a spring open house to let everyone know we are back.” — Kelli Ameling


Belding, Greenville schools undergo major upgrades

This past year marked the start and finish of some major changes to facilities at both the Belding and Greenville school districts.

Greenville High School saw the end of an era in high school football with the final game played at the historic Black Field on Judd Street in 2011. This year marked the start of a new era, that of Legacy Field, the new multi-million dollar stadium on Hillcrest Street that has grabbed state-wide attention.

The stadium opened with the inaugural varsity game between Greenville and Belding to a capacity crowd of several thousand fans. In its short life, Legacy Field has already hosted a high school eight-player state championship game.

Along with a new football stadium, Greenville High School saw the construction of a new cafeteria and commons area. The cafeteria was expanded to include more seating, allowing for the high school to become a closed campus. The commons area was built adjacent to the student-run Jacket Depot store and includes free wireless Internet, allowing students to use the room to socialize with friends or study for classes.

In Belding, major construction was visible at Ellis Elementary School, Belding Middle School and Belding High School.

The middle school cafeteria underwent a significant remodeling process, which combined the original cafeteria with the drama room, opening up more space for students during lunch period.

Ellis saw the demolition of the oldest part of the school, constructed in 1920. In its place, a new wing with seven classrooms was built and finished in December. An addition to the school, which included five more classrooms and an outdoor courtyard, was competed this past summer.

But Belding High School changed the most of any of the district buildings. This year saw the completion of a new gymnasium, indoor track, weight room and 550-seat performing arts center. Along with the in-school facilities were additional outdoor facilities including several baseball and softball fields.

Both Belding and Greenville will continue to see upgrades leading into 2013, but 2012 saw the largest construction projects come to an end. — Cory Smith

Belding, Electrolux reach agreement over buildings

 This was the year that marked the beginning of the end of the historic Gibson building and iconic clock tower in the heart of downtown Belding.

After a long legal battle stretching more than two years with Electrolux over the future of the building originally known as the White Mill, the city of Belding reached an agreement with Electrolux to have the structures demolished.

The building and clock tower stand as one of the oldest landmarks within the city, the building having been created in 1901 and the clock tower built in 1903.

Alvah Belding and his brother, Hiram, established Belding Brothers & Co. in 1890. After the construction of several silk mils throughout town, Belding earned the nickname “Silk City,” with the company employing 500 to 750 people before closing in 1932. The factory was later purchased by Gibson and converted into a plant for central and room air conditioners.

Electrolux, which acquired all rights to the former Gibson name in 1986, re-purchased the property in 2010 after selling it in 1991. The company first sought to demolish the buildings after filing a building permit application with the city for demolition of all buildings on the 4.3-acre site in 2010. The buildings were condemned by the city in 2008 and have been vacant since 1988.

In response to Belding adopting an ordinance creating a historical district six days before Electrolux filed the permit, Electrolux then filed suit against Belding to declare the historic district Invalid. In 2011, the lawsuit between Electrolux and Belding was ordered into mediation by the court.

In March of this year, the Belding Historic District Commission officially denied Electrolux’s application to demolish buildings not deemed historic by the commission. But after more than a year of mediation proceedings, it was late in November when Belding and Electrolux reached an agreement to demolish every building on the site by entering into a consent judgement.

The ordeal totaled more than $200,000 in legal fees for the city.

According to the judgment, portions of the clock tower including the slate tile rooftop over the clock tower, the clock, the wood housing surrounding the clock and the materials immediately abutting such wooden housing will be saved.

However, the structures will eventually be demolished, According to the consent judgment, the site will be remediated of contamination suitable for construction of a public city park. — Cory Smith

United Solar Ovonic files for bankruptcy

 Valentine’s Day was a heartbreaker for a local business this past year.

United Solar Ovonic (USO) and its parent company, Energy Conversion Devices (ECD), voluntarily filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Feb. 14.

The news was an about-face from six years ago when plans were announced to construct six solar panel manufacturing facilities in Greenville for a total of 1,200 new jobs. In reality, four plants were created in two buildings and a total of 474 people were employed at the peak of operations.

USO ceased having productive operations in November 2011. USO and its parent company ECD incurred $263.2 million in debt due in 2013, in addition to significant legacy costs incurred over the past 50 years.

Plant Manager Tim Kelley attributed the failure of the company in part to instability in the European market, banking industry and housing industry, among numerous other issues.

There wasn’t much surprise among USO employees when they learned they would be losing their jobs. They had foreseen the bad news long ago. Employees either received a severance package from ECD or were partially protected by the Worker Adjustment & Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, whichever option offered more coverage.

The USO plant was set to be auctioned off to the highest bidder in May; however, the auction was canceled due to the failure of receiving an acceptable bid. The remnants of USO were sold off piecemeal instead.

Buyers who purchased assets but haven’t yet collected their purchases are being allowed to pay a monthly rent until they collect the items from the now-quiet Greenville facility.

In a small silver lining, thousands of dollars worth of USO equipment was donated to the Belding Fire Department, the Greenville Department of Public Safety and the Stanton Community Fire Department for local firefighter use. — Elisabeth Waldon

Synthetic drugs rise in popularity 

This past year saw a disturbing trend gaining in popularity — the use of synthetic drugs.

A thief broke into the Handy Market in Greenville on Jan. 11, stealing packages of Kryptonite, along with energy pills. The products were completely legal to sell and were marketed as herbal incense. However, some youths and adults choose to smoke it instead.

While no major studies have been done on the effects of smoking herbal incense, a variety of mood and perceptual effects have been described. Patients have reported symptoms including rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion and hallucinations.

A 15-year-old Greenville male was hospitalized in April after he became ill from smoking marijuana laced with an herbal incense. He had smoked the substance in the morning, then became disoriented and began vomiting at school.

Officials from local agencies, such as Drug Free Montcalm, worked to raise awareness of the dangers of synthetic drugs, including bath salts, throughout this past year by hosting informative sessions at local schools. The Mid-Michigan District Health Department issued an order declaring synthetic drugs a threat to public health.

K2 Spice was outlawed in Michigan in 2010 after hundreds of cases of illness involving the substance were reported to the Poison Control Center nationally that year. Thankfully, synthetic drugs were also outlawed in Michigan this past June. It is now illegal to buy, sell or use synthetic drugs statewide.

A self-described “old hippie” who often shops at the Handy Market in Greenville told The Daily News he tried smoking herbal incense once when a young man offered him some. He wasn’t impressed.

“It tasted terrible,” he said. “I think it’s craziness. Man, what is the matter with people?” — Elisabeth Waldon

Local political drama unfolds

 Barack Obama was re-elected president against challenger Mitt Romney in a hotly contested race this past November.

Local election results were no less exciting.

Incumbent 70th District Rep. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes, defeated previous seatholder Mike Huckleberry, D-Greenville after an often ugly campaign in which the men accused each other of personal financial irresponsibility. The heated race brought several political celebrities to Montcalm County, including Gov. Rick Snyder on behalf of Outman and Sen. Carl Levin on behalf of Huckleberry.

Outman ended up being re-elected with 17,711 votes compared to Huckleberry’s 14,811 votes. Huckleberry previously served as state representative from 2009 to 2010 before being ousted from office by Outman.

A Montcalm County Sheriff’s Department millage failed twice this past year, first in February and again in November. Both proposals would have helped restore and maintain sheriff’s coverage throughout the county, including 24/7 road patrol coverage, which ended in October after countywide budget cuts.

The February proposal to generate $1.564 million over five years failed by 4,205 “no” votes to 4,085 “yes” votes — a difference of 120 votes.

The reduced November proposal to generate $971,830 per year for two years failed by 12,735 “no” votes to 11,647 “yes” votes, or 52 to 48 percent.

The tiny village of Pierson had its own election drama throughout this past year.

President Karl Van Haren survived a recall attempt by just three votes in May. That recall was initiated by Councilwoman Rebecca Starr, who attempted to resign in June. However, the village council was unable to accept Starr’s resignation due to the lack of a quorum and the fact that two councilmembers had recently resigned.

Van Haren then initiated his own recall attempt against Starr, Duane Griffes and Verna Smigiel, all councilmembers, in August. Smigiel and Starr held onto their seats, but Griffes was recalled.

Then, in November’s general election, Van Haren was ousted as president by write-in candidate Marshall Dillon, who received 21 votes to Van Haren’s 19 votes.

Van Haren had the option of requesting a recount. He declined to do so. — Elisabeth Waldon


Family Dollar armed robbery still unsolved

A year has passed, but there are no new developments in an armed robbery at the Family Dollar store in Greenville.

A man wearing a black ski mask and armed with a handgun walked into the store the evening of Jan. 5. He pointed a handgun at the cashier and demanded cash.

Two employees emptied the contents of the cash register, then locked themselves in the manager’s office in the back of the store with a customer who was in the store at the time and called 911.

Police immediately set up a perimeter armed with large rifles. Patrol officers entered the building and brought the customer and both employees outside to safety. They were looking for a man about six feet tall and 170 pounds wearing green gloves, black boots, dark colored jeans and a gray and white plaid hoodie with a white hood.

“The case remains open,” said Greenville Department of Public Safety Director Michael Pousak. “However, we do not have any suspects at this time. Any leads that could be followed up on, have been.”

Anyone with information about the robbery is asked to call the Greenville Department of Public Safety at (616) 754-9161. – — Kelli Ameling


Cleaning up Montcalm County

 Four Montcalm County properties have been cleaned up or are in the process of being cleaned up after being condemned.

Those properties include a gas station in Amble, a mobile home park in Edmore, a factory in Sheridan and a family farm in Vestaburg.

The former gas station on M-46 in Winfield Township, better known as Amble, went out of business some years ago. The property went into foreclosure in 2011 due to unpaid taxes. The Montcalm County Building Department condemned the property.

Paul Bazner bid $10,500 to successfully obtain the property in Montcalm County’s no minimum bid foreclosure auction this past September. According to Montcalm Alliance Executive Director Franz Mogdis, the new owner has plans to re-open the facility as a convenience store and will receive some help from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in cleaning up the gas tanks and contamination left behind.

An infamous mobile home park on M-46 just outside of Edmore was finally cleaned up, thanks to the efforts of Home Township officials.

Corey Davy and Dorothy Henderline purchased the foreclosed property in 2008. Davy went to prison in 2009, was paroled in 2011 and spent much of his time in hospitals and rehab. The mobile home park swiftly deteriorated and was condemned in 2011, forcing all the residents to relocate.

When Davy was sentenced to another jail term, Home Township officials obtained a court order allowing them to clean up the park and forcing Davy and Henderline to pay the financial cost. Mobile home foundations, a small shed, an empty mailbox and tall grass are all that remain today.

The long-abandoned and crumbling Carnation building is an unsafe part of Sheridan’s downtown landscape. The facility was built in 1930 and ceased operations in 1975.

The village council voted this past summer to purchase the building at a cost of $6,617.14 with the intention of eliciting grant funds to determine the amount and type of pollution at the site and demolish the building. A Brownfield Authority grant from the Environmental Protection Agency will help accomplish the task.

A family farm’s downfall in Vestaburg continues to unfold with no happy ending in sight. Brothers Donald Beach and Stanley Beach took over their parents’ property on Crystal Road decades ago. The 36 acres fell into disarray over the years and was condemned in 2011.

The condemnation order hasn’t kept the Beach brothers away, however. Donald Beach has repeatedly been found living on the property and brought into court on those charges. The brothers have cleaned up much of the mess on the property.

Conflicts remain between the brothers and local government — especially Richland Township officials who have asked Montcalm County government to intervene on the township’s behalf. County officials have thus far declined, saying township officials are welcome to take their own action on the property. — Elisabeth Waldon

 Area schools deal with budget woes

 Things are tough all over, and nowhere is that truer than in the academic arena. Drops in enrollment and decreased funding have forced most area schools to come up with innovative techniques for keeping programs afloat.

Every local school has had to make changes, some more drastic than others.

According to Tri County Area Schools Superintendent Allen Cumings, added efficiency has helped stretch what dollars the school system still has.

“As we have decreased funding and had a drop in pupil enrollment we have made changes in our district of moving to single bus runs, redesign of the district building configuration, worked toward becoming more lean and efficient while still working toward educational improvements,” Cumings said.  “We worked on improvements in energy efficiencies and the savings is allowing us to make improvements to buildings which is saving on some general education costs.  Through this process we also re-opened our Edgerton Elementary building and created a early childhood center which now serves 116 preschool students.”

Montabella Community Schools Superintendent Shelly Millis said her school district has been dealing with budget cuts for some time now.

“Due to the continual decreases in state funding, Montabella, along with many other schools, have been forced to make budget reductions,” Millis said. “We have been in a position of reducing our budget every year over the past seven years with less options each year.  We were fortunate this fall to maintain student numbers from the previous year.”

At Greenville Public Schools, administrators have scheduled a series of community forums to gather public input as to steps that might be taken to keep the school system’s current academic offerings intact.

“We’ll be talking about the current situation and potential impact of legislative initiatives on our future,” Superintendent Peter Haines said.  “The bottom line, we’ve kept programs in place, and even expanded in some areas this year, but almost entirely due to the collaboration and generosity of our staff and community.

“We are operating with a slight projected deficit budget, but may see that close completely by the end of the year, unless more changes from Lansing or Washington D.C., swing revenues or expenses in harmful ways,” he said.

According to Carson City-Crystal Area Schools Superintendent Kevin Murphy, the system has taken $150,000 from the fund balance in order to balance out all the changes  in this school year’s budget, especially retirement cost changes.

As schools move into the future, budget concerns are likely to be foremost on the minds of most administrators.  Cooperation and open communication between the schools systems and the communities they serve is the best way to maintain the programs currently in place, according to Cumings.

“We continue to be challenged by a lack of revenue to districts, and yet costs associated with education, employment and benefits and utility bills continue to increase,” Cumings said. “I am pleased to work with a community and staff that continues to support our education system during this economically challenging time.” — Mike Taylor

 Unusual weather affected crops

 Unseasonably warm temperatures early in 2012 had detrimental affects on many West Michigan crops and positive affects on others.  In March, farmers and agriculture experts from throughout the area gathered at Montcalm Community College’s Instruction West Building in Sidney to discuss what many see as a possible long-term warming trend brought about by global warming.

Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association (MABA), who addressed the gathering, said 2011 was a banner year for Michigan farmers with nothing but good news predicted for the years ahead. Byrum noted that corn yields have risen in Michigan from 81 bushels per acre in 1970 to 153 in 2011 despite a wet, late planting season last year. He predicts that trend will continue, increasing to 250 bushels per acre by 2025.

The mild, early spring was no friend to area orchards in 2012, however. Frost, which followed unseasonably warm temperatures in the spring, resulted in drastically reduced yields. According to George Wright, co-owner of H&W Farms in Belding, the warmer-than-usual winter had a detrimental affect on his cherry and apple crops.

Some local growers, such as Klackle’s Orchard, were not originally worried.  However, a late frost, which took place after the trees had begun to bud, resulted in reduced yields. Klackle’s Orchard, like many in the area, curtailed or cancelled annual apple-picking events, focusing instead on pumpkins and other late-season crops.

Phil Korson, president of the Cherry Marketing Institute, noted the mild winter and late frost also significantly reduced the state’s cherry crop.

“Michigan does 70 to 75 percent of the U.S. supply of tart cherries,” Korson said.  The state generally produced 275 million pounds of cherries; this year fewer than 35 million pounds were produced in Michigan.

Field crops were also hurt this past summer, owing in large part to dry, hot conditions.  With the temperature many days hovering near 100 degrees, rain was badly needed.  When it did come, it frequently took the form of storms, flooding fields and further damaging crops.  These sudden downpours did little to supply the long-term moisture needed for a successful harvest.

Corn, which can thrive in hot weather, performed a little better than potatoes.  In both cases, farmers who rely on rain rather than irrigation systems were hit hardest by the unusual weather.

Most area farmers, accustomed to capricious weather, are looking toward next season.

Howard City fruit grower Wayne Watts, owner of Watts’ Orchards, said that nearly all of his crop was lost due to the spring frost.

“They will bloom again,” said Watts of his fruit trees.  “In the meantime, we just have to wait.” — Mike Taylor

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