Leader Publications’ top stories of the year for Niles, Buchanan, Edwardsburg

Published 9:15 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 Niles, Buchanan and Edwardsburg.

10. Budding marijuana businesses bloom

In Niles, Buchanan and Edwardsburg, marijuana business went from budding to blooming in 2020. The green increased as businesses cultivating, processing and selling medical and adult-use product came to towns in the region.

Green Stem and the Re-Leaf Center in Niles adapted to a curbside model early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, after receiving their adult-use licenses. A third medical marijuana dispensary, Primitive, will be driven to a touchdown by Calvin Johnson Jr., former wide receiver, and Rob Sims, former guard, for the Detroit Lions. Primitive will take up residence at the former Billiard Garden on S. 11th Street. It is currently under renovations. The ReLeaf Center and Native Michigan Remedies received provisional licences to develop consumption centers in the works.

Buchanan saw a bloom of businesses as multiple dispensaries expanded into the area, and more cultivation plants arrived. High Profile and Redbud Roots were just two businesses to grow.

Edwardsburg village approved two marijuana dispensaries. The first to open was Dr. A’s Re-Leaf Center in the former Lunker’s Bait Shop.

9. 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 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.

8. Food insecurity increases amid COVID-19

In August, according to Feeding America West Michigan, Berrien County had seen an increase of food insecurity from pre-COVID-19 numbers of 14-percent, or one in seven, to 19-percent, or nearly one in five people.

“We don’t anticipate the heightened need to go away anytime soon,” Ludema said in August.

In November, the need had stayed the same.

For Thanksgiving, the Wortham family organized a drive-up Thanksgiving dinner meal pickup. Within the first 45 minutes of the event, the family and volunteers were out of all 300 meals, which they had anticipated to take three hours to serve.

For Christmas, Boy Scout Troop 541 helped deliver meal boxes in the Buchanan area from Redbud Area Ministries. RAM’s Executive Director Jan Nowak-Walters said she was seeing the definition of a household in need of food change through 2020.

7. Leadership shake up comes to area police departments, fire stations

Public safety in the Niles area saw a changing of the guards in 2020. Leadership shifted in both police forces and fire departments.

On Aug. 1, Fire Chief Gary Brovold with the Niles Township Fire Department retired after 37 years with the department. He served as chief for 16 years.

The Niles Township Fire Department is currently seeking its new fire chief.

Across town, Fire Chief Larry Lamb with the Niles City Fire Department retired as October arrived after over 30 years with the department.

As Lamb retired, Niles Police Chief Jim Millin moved into a leadership position bridging the Niles Police Department and the Niles City Fire Department: Niles Public Safety Director. Now the head of both departments, Millin takes on the administrative role in public safety.

First Lieutenant and Post Commander Michael Dawson of the Michigan State Police Niles Post #53 retired on Aug. 31, turning in his badge to the state. He rounded 31 years on the state police force on Aug. 20.

6. Roundabout coming to Milton Township intersection

In early November, Milton Township Supervisor Eric Renken and Cass County Road Commission Chief Engineer Joe Bellina confirmed a new roundabout is in the works for the eastern intersection of Redfield Street and Gumwood Road. The roundabout is a couple years out, with a finish date in 2022 or 2023, but the CCRC was given a Safety Grant from the Michigan Department of Transportation cover $581,672 of construction costs for the initiative.

The CCRC and Milton Township joined forces in 2014 to do a study of the intersection.

The feasibility study looked at around eight different options for the intersection and saw a roundabout was the best fit.

5. Skatepark hits rail

Beginning in the end of August, the Niles Skatepark was temporarily closed due to fights and illegal activity on the premises. Multiple rounds of graffiti were soon added to the list of ills that brought the skatepark to the forefront of the community’s attention.

A week after it was closed, city departments volunteered their time to carefully clean the skatepark of its graffiti, including the Niles Police Department, Niles Fire Department, city administration and more.

Community members rallied in support of keeping the skatepark open to skateboarders.

Cameras were discussed to be installed to keep an eye on the skatepark, and police presence was increased to patrol the area.

4. Microburst blows through Niles

On Aug. 25, Niles residents woke up to blocked roads, downed powerlines and damage to homes and businesses throughout the city. Power outages were sporadic throughout the area, as crews hurried to restore power and repair the powerlines.

National Weather Service meteorologist Kyle Brown said a thunderstorm early that morning developed north and west of the area.

“As it tracked over Niles, the storm collapsed resulting in higher winds,” Brown said.

For Charles Wetmore, on Emmons Street, a tree fell through his roof as he was looking out his window just after making his morning coffee.

At South Third and Broadway streets, Al Casperson’s chimney was destroyed by the storm.

Crews and residents spent much of the day recovering power, their yards and structures from the storm.

3. Crimes and tragedies

We cannot forget the crimes that got to the heart of our community, and the losses felt through this year. Here are just a few:

In early January, Jean Claude Mutabazi, of South Bend, was identified as deceased after a kayaking accident on the St. Joseph River where he went missing in the river for several hours. Two others were rescued, as the fourth remained in his kayak to try to help the others in the freezing temperatures.

A Niles man, Garrett Gilpin, was found dead in mid-November after being missing since mid-October. Gilpin was found in the St. Joseph River near the 200 block of Marion Street in South Bend.

In early December, two teens were arrested and charged with felonies following a vehicle pursuit and crash in the city of Niles. The fleeing vehicle lost control near Pucker Street, causing the vehicle to go off-road and crash down the steep embankment. Four males exited the vehicle. A firearm one disposed of was recovered and discovered to be stolen.

2. Buchanan named “Nicest Place in America” in 2020 by Reader’s Digest

On Oct. 8, Buchanan residents learned Reader’s Digest’s annual Nicest Place in America contest had chosen Buchanan as its winner for 2020.

“I never expected that,” said Buchanan resident David Van Dyke that day, who nominated Buchanan for the contest. “I’m still processing it. I’m thrilled.”

In July, Buchanan was named as Nicest Place in Michigan before it ultimately won the title outright. A story and video about Buchanan was featured on the Reader’s Digest website. Buchanan was featured on the cover of the magazine’s print edition.

Several factors led to Buchanan’s win, according to an editor’s note on the Reader’s Digest story, including banners of veterans placed around town in place of the annual Memorial Day parade, which was canceled due to COVID-19 and a peaceful Black Lives Matters protest hosted after the death of George Floyd.

“The reason we decided to tell Buchanan’s story on the cover of our magazine is because it is so exemplary of unity we saw all across the country,” said Jeremy Greenfield, senior editor of new product development at Reader’s Digest.

1. Businesses grow, adapt to COVID-19 changes

Throughout 2020, new and established business owners worked hard to weather changing pandemic mandates and a shifting economy. Restaurants and marijuana dispensaries took their services curbside to serve customers when dining and retail areas were closed. Retail shops like The Upcycled Artisan in downtown Niles opened their doors despite the limitations.

Innovative Products Unlimited in Niles had sales boom early in the COVID-19 pandemic, as a manufacturer of PVC products, including carts and beds, for isolation units in hospitals

The city of Niles and Niles Main Street opened The NODE – the Niles Outdoor Dining Experience – on Second Street to help support carry-out and delivery service from restaurants and bars throughout the city.

Other businesses rebelled against the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, opening dining rooms against another wave of no dine-in mandates in November and December. Rise-n-Shine Café and Harvest Café notably reopened their doors to diners, so as to not close their doors permanently.

“I believe the businesses have really brought their A-game to do everything they possibly can within this world we are living in,” said Lisa Croteau, director of marketing and administration of the Niles Main Street Downtown Development Authority. “The community has been really wonderful in recognizing and supporting their efforts.”

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.