Leader Publications counts down the top 10 stories of 2021 for Dowagiac, Cassopolis

Published 8:00 am Friday, December 31, 2021

Before southwest Michigan puts 2021 in the rearview, Leader Publications is looking back at its top 10 stories of the year. These are stories that cover issues that made a significant impact in Cassopolis, Dowagiac and Sister Lakes. These are stories of heartbreak, triumph and everything in between. Without further ado, let’s count down the top stories of the year.

10. Lewis Cass ISD gets new name

After months of deliberation, the former Lewis Cass Intermediate School District got a new name this year.

The district approved a name change to Heritage Southwest ISD in January. The board had been considering a new name since mid-2020 after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer removed Lewis Cass, who was a territorial governor of Michigan in the 1800s, 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.

ISD board members said the new name of Heritage Southwest better represented the people of Cass County.

“What we really stuck on is the rural nature of Cass County and how we are diverse, more diverse than a lot of rural communities,” said former ISD Superintendent Brent Holcomb.

9. Dowagiac festivals return

After the COVID-19 pandemic canceled nearly all events in Dowagiac in 2020, 2021 saw their comeback.

Several of Dowagiac’s beloved festivals, including Summer in the City, Under the Harvest Moon and the Candlelight Christmas Parade, made their triumphant return this year as COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings lifted.

Those involved in the festivals said they were glad to see
them return.

“It’s exciting to move forward, as we get back on the path to a new normalcy,” said Vickie Phillipson, chamber program director.

8. Short-term rental policies spark controversy

Short-term rental ordinances, which would affect properties that rent themselves on websites such as Airbnb, were a hot topic in areas such as Silver Creek Township.

In January, the Silver Creek Township Planning Commission introduced the first draft of its potential short-term rental ordinance after months of discussion. The ordinance would have regulated how short-term rental could operate. While the ordinance proved unpopular with short-term rental owners, township officials argued it was necessary as short-term rentals were not technically permitted within township limits, as the area is zoned as a single-family zoning district.

In February, the township tabled a vote on the ordinance, while later officials voted to bring in experts to consult on the subject.

Now, all the work the township put into considering an ordinance may be moot.

This fall, Michigan House lawmakers last week approved legislation that would prohibit cities and townships from banning short-term rental housing and include short-term rentals as a valid residential use under Michigan’s zoning act. A nearly identical bill has been introduced in the Michigan Senate but has yet to clear it.

“Rather than us going in and trying to pass something that at this point may or may not be consistent with the state, I think we’re all comfortable with putting this topic on hold until we see what happens with that state legislation,” said Planning Commission Chair Terry Harris at a June meeting.

7. Shootings rock the community

Several area shootings rocked the community this year.

In April, a Cassopolis man was hospitalized following a shooting. At 1:15 a.m. April 3, the Cassopolis Police Department was dispatched to the 300 block of S. East Street in the village of Cassopolis for a report of gunshots fired.

Upon arrival, officers located a 35-year-old man inside a residence suffering from a gunshot wound to the neck. The victim was stabilized by medics and transported to a local hospital. The suspect, according to police, was a fellow Cassopolis man.

In early May, a Cassopolis man was treated for injuries sustained following a shooting during a Constantine little league game.

On the evening of May 5, officers with the Constantine Police Department were called to Constantine Little League Complex at Meadow Lane and S. Washington Street on reports of shots fired.

Officers arrived on scene roughly one minute after dispatch and found a 38-year-old Cassopolis man with multiple gunshot injuries. The victim was conscious and alert and was treated by medical first responders before being transported by helicopter to South Bend Memorial Hospital, where he underwent surgery.

Later that month, a Cassopolis Middle School student, Jessica Heroy, was killed in a shooting in Ontwa Township.

On May 16, officers with the Ontwa Township/Edwardsburg Police Department were called to investigate the shooting of a 15-year-old by a 12-year-old.

Witnesses told police that a gun had been taken from a safe, but it had been believed that the gun was unloaded. The suspect pointed the weapon at Heroy and pulled the trigger. Heroy died at the scene from her injuries.

“Our heart goes out to the family and the community for this terrible tragedy,” said then-superintendent of Cassopolis Public Schools Angela Piazza.

6. Cassopolis Public Schools names new superintendent

Cassopolis Public Schools is under new leadership.

Effective Aug. 2, then-superintendent Angela Piazza resigned after having been with the district since 2017. Under Piazza’s leadership at Cassopolis, the district adopted a project-based learning approach and one-to-one technology. However, in the months leading up to her resignation, parents attended school board meetings to express concerns with district leadership.

Following Piazza’s departure, the district began its search for a new superintendent. In November, after two rounds of interviews, John Ritzler, retired executive director of research and evaluation at South Bend Community School Corporation, was selected to be the next Cassopolis superintendent.

5. Beckwith Park sees completion

A historic park is sporting a new look in downtown Dowagiac.

This summer, the city of Dowagiac completed its plan to renovate and improve the condition of Beckwith Park, which began with the removal of the long-standing gazebo in June 2018.

The newly renovated park boasts a community space complete with a fire pit, memorial bricks and public art.

4. Business growth on horizon for Dowagiac, Cassopolis

2021 brought another year of growth to the area business community.

The city of Dowagiac got exciting news this year when the ownership group behind Sister Lakes’ Propaganda Pizza and South Bend’s Fatbird announced they closed on the purchase of the former Zeke’s Restaurant space and would be installing a Texas-style barbeque joint called Barred Owl BBQ.

Additionally, the city saw business growth with the openings of Venue 123, several short-term rental businesses, new health clinics and more.

Cassopolis saw growth in the advancement of Midwest Energy and Communications’ Southwest Michigan Advanced Research and Technology (SMART) Park. In July, Hydro Aluminum Metals signed a letter of intent to acquire acreage and build an aluminum recycling plant on the property. In the cannabis industry, the village saw the openings of Sunset Coast Provisions and Bud Express. The village also saw business openings with of Past, Presents and More, Holden Green Tavern and Stone Lake Grill, among others.

3. Stone Lake Beach opens

These days, Cassopolis’ Stone Lake looks unrecognizable.

Where there was once nothing, there is now a sandy beach, a brand-new pier, connector path, boat launch, pavilion, picnic tables, speaker-equipped lampposts, benches and more.

In June, the Village of Cassopolis officially unveiled its new Stone Lake Beach with its inaugural Beach Bash.

The new developments came as the result of a beach project more than three years in the making. The beach project is part of the downtown development projects identified by 2018’s Imagine Cass Project. The beach and pier projects alone represent $2.5 million in investments, while all downtown development projects, including a new streetscape and more, total nearly $15 million, paid for both with grants and capital improvement funds.

“There was just a feeling that it was time to invest in the community,” said Village Manager Emilie LaGrow. “It’s amazing what this village has been able to
accomplish.”

2. Teacher negotiations continue at Dowagiac Union Schools

Tensions have been brewing at Dowagiac Union Schools.

For months, parents are staff members have been speaking out at public meetings expressing frustrations with ongoing contract negotiations, district leadership and the fact that more than 30 staff members have left the district since January. 

The frustrations came to head in December when the Dowagiac Education Association issued a letter to the board informing them they have approved a vote of no confidence in district administration, specifically Superintendent Jonathan Whan.

“We do not believe that the superintendent has acted in the best interests of students, staff or the community at large,” said DEA President and DUHS teacher Matt Nicholls, reading from the letter. “[We] request board action to determine the best course of action to rectify the many problems within our district. … The climate and culture of the district have suffered immensely under the current leadership.”

At a December 13 meeting, Whan said he was disappointed to hear negative statements about the district and district leadership.

“Unfortunately, in this world today, when you’re in these positions and you’re the head of organizations, there are times you will be challenged,” he said. “We take it, and we do our best to continue to grow and improve.”

1. COVID-19 pandemic rages on

COVID-19 again takes Leader Publications’ top story of the year, as the pandemic continues to rage on and impact southwest Michigan.

Throughout the year, health officials reported continued rates of high COVID-19 transmission and limited hospital space as new variants of the COVID-19 virus impacted the region. Businesses survived dine-in closures, capacity limits and mask mandates. Parents debated, protested against and advocated for mask mandates in schools.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an undeniable impact on southwest Michigan and Leader Publications’ coverage of events. As the pandemic stretches into the new year, time will only tell how the pandemic will impact 2022.