Leader Publications’ top stories of the year for Cassopolis, Dowagiac

Published 9:13 am Friday, January 1, 2021

It is safe to say that when the clock struck midnight last New Year’s Eve, no one could have predicted what 2020 had in store. In southwest Michigan, this year has been one of great heartbreak and difficulties, but our communities have also seen triumphs and compassion. To commemorate the year, with all of its ups and downs, Leader Publications is counting down its top stories of the year from Dowagiac and Cassopolis

10. Two men electrocuted on Dailey Road

An accidental electrocution left two brothers fighting for their lives in late July.

Cassopolis soccer coach Austin Francis and his brother, Lane Francis, were airlifted from a home in LaGrange Township after the men reportedly electrocuted themselves while moving a sailboat. After receiving CPR and being administered automatic external defibrillators at the scene, the men were transported to a hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana and were in stable condition a few days later.

9. ICG site improvement plan

The site of the former ICG building had long sat vacant but Dowagiac Union Schools and the city of Dowagiac sought to end that in 2020.

The DUS Board of Education approved its ICG site improvement plan during a September meeting. A combined effort between the district and the city of Dowagiac, the plan called for a demolition of the ICG building and the construction of a new parking lot between Chris Taylor Alumni Field and the high school campus.

The proposed parking lot will have more than 200 parking spots and will cost less than $300,000. The city, which owns the ICG property, will make the improvements and the district will pay for the improvements, over the course of a 10-year period.

With the demolition of the building complete, parking lot construction is underway and the project should be completed by spring.

8. Diamond Lake Fourth of July party draws national attention

The Fourth of July brought national attention to Diamond Lake after a video of a party, which showed party-goers crammed together and forgoing masks, went viral.

The party drew scrutiny nationwide after the video was picked up by large media outlets and was referenced in an address from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

According to Cass County Sheriff Richard Behnke, the party not only violated state COVID-19 orders, but the annual party had become increasingly troublesome to the community over the years due to parking on private property, excessive drinking, underaged drinking, public indecency, unsafe boating, public disorder, and the lake’s public access becoming “overwhelmed with cars, trash and human defecation.”

The Sheriff’s Office forwarded all possible charges to the Cass County prosecutor, who turned the case over the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.

7. Dowagiac listed as finalist for space command center

The city of Dowagiac could be a hub for aerospace activity as early as next year.

In a September press release, Dowagiac was listed by the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturing Association as one of six potential locations for its new space launch command center in Michigan.

The command center would support the organization’s planned satellite launch sites near Marquette, Michigan and Oscoda, Michigan. Site selection is based on many factors, including existing infrastructure, geographic and terrestrial mapping, living standards and workforce development. The Dowagiac Municipal Airport, which could potentially host the command center, features a 4,700-foot runway and a new 1,080 square-foot terminal, with construction on a sixth T hangar currently underway.

MAMA is scheduled to announce the findings of its site selection process for a new command and control center in January.

6. Lewis Cass ISD votes to change name

After months of deliberation, the Lewis Cass Intermediate School District voted in December to change its name due to its association with Lewis Cass, a former territorial governor of Michigan and secretary of war under then-President Andrew Jackson.

The issue was first brought to the table over the summer after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer removed Lewis Cass’ name from a state office building due to evidence of him being a slave owner, supporting states’ right to choose whether or not to outlaw slavery and implementing policies under President Andrew Jackson that relocated and harmed Native Americans.

As the issue proved to be a controversial one within the community, the Lewis Cass ISD Board of Education formed a specialized committee to review whether or not a name change was warranted. In December, the committee recommended a name change so as to be more inclusive of all students in Cass County, which the board approved.

As of now, what the new name of the ISD remains to be seen, but the board plans to vote on a new name in early 2021.

5. Cassopolis Streetscape makes significant strides despite COVID delays

At the final Cassopolis Village Council meeting of 2020, Village Manager Emily Sarratore gave an update on the community’s Streetscape project.

Despite delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting orders issued by the state of Michigan and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Sarratore told council members the project is progressing.

Selge Construction completed the 2020 work on the project on Dec. 18 to take a two-week break for the holidays and make equipment repairs. Work is scheduled to resume in January, depending on the weather.

“Clearly, we cannot put the topcoat and pave these roads right now,” Sarratore said. “That will have to wait until the spring. They have the decking on the pier, which is great. But because of COVID, handrails and those types of things are on backorder. That will still be blocked off, and hopefully, we will keep people from being out on it. We are going to do our best.”

4. Major crime

A home invasion turned murder rocked the greater Dowagiac community in 2020.

Justin Robert-Gabriel Carlton was sentenced to 43 years to 70 years in prison for the Jan. 27 shooting death of Michael Collins. Carlton and his partner in crime, Jay Vincent Penar, entered  Collins’ home with masks intending to rob him. Upon entry Collins resisted and was immediately shot by Carlton. Penar awaits trial and faces 11 felony charges including open murder and armed robbery in connection with Collins’ death.

Vehicle break-ins and thefts increased dramatically in Cass County this year, according to Cass County Sheriff Richard Behnke’s public safety report. Behnke announced that county-wide vehicle thefts have increased by 40 percent this year, including three police chases in December involving stolen vehicles.

“It’s not like they’re hotwiring them or anything,” Behnke said. “They’re just finding keys in cars and taking them. It has led to a lot of different types of issues throughout the county.”

3. Zeke’s, Underwood close

2020 saw two of downtown Dowagiac’s staple establishments close their doors for good.

In January, after more than 30 years of operation, management at Zeke’s Restaurant announced the restaurant would be closed indefinitely. The abrupt closure of the eatery was a blow to both patrons and staff alike.

In March, the Dowagiac City Council unanimously voted at a special meeting to purchase the building at 109 S. Front St., Dowagiac for $350,000, with hopes of finding a new restaurant to set up shop there in the near future.

Tom Underwood, owner of Underwood Shoes — Dowagiac’s premier shoe store for 70 years — announced in August that he would be retiring and closing the store in November. The store was founded in 1948 by Underwood’s father and served as a model of stability for downtown Dowagiac for decades.

2. Rotary celebrates 100 Years

The Dowagiac Rotary Club, which was chartered in 1920 through Rotary International, celebrated its centennial anniversary this year.

The club has played a role in the growth and development of Dowagiac since its inception, with projects including helping to place handicap classrooms in the city in the 1920s and the installation of Rotary Villa and Rotary Park.

Rotary District 6360 Governor Margie Haas presented newly-minted club president Bob Coochrane with a certificate of recognition for the club’s 100 years in Dowagiac during a club meeting in June. In celebration of the milestone, Rotary also donated a welcome sign to the city of Dowagiac featuring the Rotary logo.

The onset of the pandemic prevented the group from hosting a centennial celebration to commemorate the group’s 100 years in Dowagiac, with many of the group’s plans for the 100th anniversary pushed to 2021.

1. Dowagiac District Library renovation nears completion

The expansion and renovation of the historic Dowagiac District Library is the Dowagiac’s top story of 2020.

After breaking ground in October 2019, phase one of the project — the construction of a new wing of the library — was completed in November. New spaces within the expansion will include a community meeting room, general study and meeting rooms, a teen space, vending area, and expanded popular collections for books and other items.

Phase two — the renovation of the original building, including the demolition and restoration of the library’s Carnegie front — began in November and is scheduled to be completed in March.

“Completing the library addition and starting on the renovations to the old building has been a fairly smooth process,” said library director Matthew Weston. “All things considered, we’ve been fortunate to have only had to pause construction for about six weeks. The construction crew and library staff have also stayed healthy. I’m optimistic that the pandemic will come to an end in 2021, and that a new library will be ready in its full capacity for the community. We’re currently open for browsing and computer use, and will continue to do so as long as it’s safe.  We plan on making the Library a place where the community can come not only for information, but also to see each other and interact once again.”

In years past, the Leader Publications’ top 10 list would have ended after number one. However, as this year has been an unusual one, we are organizing our list in an unusual way. For the first time in a long time, the issues that have most impacted Leader Publications’ communities have been national ones that trickled down to have a very personal effect on southwest Michigan residents. Below are top three issues that have made a lasting impact on southwest Michigan this year.

3. Elections shake up community

The November election was contentious not only the national level, but the state and local level as well. In addition to causing a shake up in the presidency, local cities, villages and townships saw shifts in leadership, while many local school boards hosted heated elections.

The 2020 elections not only changed the candidates sitting in seats of leadership, it also changed the way elections would be viewed forever. The rise in mail-in voting allowed for record voter turnouts in Berrien and Cass counties, while keeping area clerks busier than ever.

The impact of the election results will continue to impact our area for years to come, making it one the most important stories of 2020.

2. Residents march to support racial justice

The country was rocked by death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, who was killed in Minneapolis on May 25. Floyd died after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, held a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The effect of Floyd’s rippled down into southwest Michigan communities, with Buchanan, Cassopolis, Dowagiac and Niles hosting marches and events in order to call for change and racial justice.

The impact of George Floyd’s death and the community’s response did not end after the marches were over. The demonstrations helped launch the Social Justice Alliance of Cass County, which has dedicated itself to providing racial and social justice education to the people of Cass County. Additionally, the march in Buchanan helped it become nominated for Readers Digests’ annual Nicest Place in America contest.

The way this tragedy from states away brought our communities together in an unprecedented way to call for reformed earned it a number two spot on our list.

1. COVID-19 changes daily life

Of course, no top story list would be complete without the COVID-19 pandemic taking center stage. Since March, there has not been a day that has gone by without the words “COVID-19,” “pandemic” or “coronavirus” being featured in at least one headline.

The pandemic changed life for residents in southwest Michigan and across the world. From mask mandates to lockdowns to business and school closures to protests to virtual church and funeral services and more, the pandemic has touched nearly every aspect of daily life, and our residents have had to adapt.

The pandemic has also taken more than 200 lives in Berrien and Cass counties alone, with more than 450,000 cases and 12,000 deaths statewide.

No other single issue has had a bigger impact on the year 2020, nor has any other issue dominated coverage the way the COVID-19 pandemic has, making it our top story of the year.