Leader Publications counts down the top 10 stories of 2021 for Niles, Buchanan

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 stories cover issues that made a significant impact in Niles, Niles Township and Buchanan. These are stories of heartbreak, triumph and everything in between. Without further ado, let’s count down the top stories of the year.

10. Residents ask for an end to gun violence

Over the summer, residents in the city of Niles’ First Ward became concerned about what they saw as an increase in gun violence, with incidents on June 13, Aug. 9, Aug. 13, Aug. 16 and Aug. 31. Residents responded by speaking out at public meetings, hosting weekly prayer vigils and posting signs in their neighborhoods reading “Pray for peace. Stop gun violence.”

In September, local law enforcement responded by participating in a community town hall meeting hosted by Councilwoman Georgia Boggs. During the meeting, police answered residents’ questions and reported that much of the gun violence had been caused by a dispute between two different groups.

“The gun violence we have now is not a rampant problem,” Director of Public Safety Jim Millin reported in September. “We feel it’s within these two groups.”

9. Buchanan envisions a new future for downtown

In 2021, the city of Buchanan, with the help of Andrews University students, envisioned a new future for its downtown.

In January, students with Andrews University’s Urban Design Studio arrived in Buchanan to create plans for downtown revitalization. In April, the students presented their work to the community, which included plans to widen sidewalks, add curbless streets, create new housing and restore existing parks to name just a few.

“Buchanan is a small town with a big heart, and we are always looking to improve. This is one way that we can do that,” said City Manager Heather Grace.

8. Cannabis Festival sparks controversy

In August, the city of Niles was host to its first-ever Cannabis Festival, organized by Float Presents. The festival was followed by a second event in September.

While organizers and local cannabis companies were fans of the event, the road to its inception was not without controversy.

The event, described as a “mini Woodstock,” was first approved by the Niles City Council in a 6-2 vote in April. The event drew both supporters and detractors at several city council meetings leading up to the event. In the end, event organizers and local dispensaries called the inaugural event a success.

“It’s amazing,” said Mel Spencley, co-owner of Float Presents, the company that hosted the event. “This event is the first of its kind, so I think everyone wanted to be here, see what would happen and enjoy this.”

7. Family remembers victim after convicted murderer released

The release of a convicted murderer in Cass County caused the victim’s family to speak out.

In January, Robert Leamon III was released from prison after spending more than 20 years in prison for the murder of his girlfriend.

Leamon, now 45, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1997 for the 1993 murder of his then-girlfriend, Rebecca Stowe. The two were students at Brandywine High School in Niles, and the murder took place in rural Cass County. Stowe’s body was not found and Leamon was not arrested until over two years later. Leamon had been 16 at the time of the murder and was eligible for a resentencing under the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a life without parole sentence for “juvenile lifers” is unconstitutional except in rare circumstances.

Prior to Leamon’s release, Stowe’s family spoke about the court’s decision.

“To lose [Stowe] has been an incredible loss,” said sister Cindy Slates. “The state of Michigan parole board covertly set [Leamon] free, robbing Becky’s family and friends from a chance to explain why there is no rehabilitation for the mind who does what Robert did,”

6. DDA decisions spur debate

Two decisions by the Niles Main Street Downtown Development Authority sparked controversy among residents and business owners.

The first was the ongoing discussion of the Niles Outdoor Dining Experience, known as the NODE, a social area located on a closed section of road at Main and Second streets. The area, which features lighting, a gas-powered fire pit and seating, officially opened to the public in December of last year. In early spring, the council voted 5-2 to keep the NODE in its current location until at least April 2022. The continuation of the NODE in its current location has been a cause of controversy. its supporters believe it provides valuable community space in a well-trafficked area, while others wish the NODE to be moved to a different area, as they believe its current location has reduced foot and drive-thru traffic to businesses in the area.

The second was the DDA’s September vote to recommend allowing two marijuana dispensaries to open downtown. DDA President Bryan Williams said the board was inspired to recommend dispensaries downtown by looking to other Michigan cities that have done so with success, and he wanted to start discussions with the city about
the topic.

“I just wanted to reopen the discussion,” Williams said. “As the DDA president, it is part of my duties is to get people downtown.”

Those against marijuana downtown have spoken out against the idea, believing it would change the environment of the city and create parking problems.

Conversations around both topics are still ongoing.

5. After years of complaints, Heico Building comes down

After years of waiting, city residents were able to see the property at 901 Howard St. demolished and turned into greenspace.

The former National Standard facility, owned by holding company Heico, has sat abandoned for more than a decade and became best known in the city not for being a bustling headquarters, but instead for its crumbling structures, piles of debris and graffiti-laden walls. For years, residents surrounding the property have petitioned for its demolition, calling it a dangerous eyesore.

In late September, that changed as the Niles City Council unanimously voted to amend City Ordinance 458 to allow for certain at-grade and below-grade structures to remain and for the property at 901 Howard St. to be capped as green space. The vote allowed for the demolition of the property, with foundations and concrete slabs to remain undisturbed due to ground-level contamination.

The vote to turn the property into greenspace was met with excitement by both city leaders and
area residents.

“I’m very excited,” said Niles resident and former councilmember Dan VandenHeede. “Anything is better than what [was] there.”

4. Local teacher arrested after confrontation with predator catcher group

The Brandywine community was rocked when a teacher was arrested after he was caught on film allegedly attempting to solicit a minor for sexual purposes.

Patrick Stier, a former Career Technical Education and CADD teacher at Brandywine High School, was charged with accosting a minor for immoral purposes and using a computer to commit a felony in April.

The charges came after Stier was placed on administrative leave on April 11 due to an allegation of misconduct outside of school. The action came after a video posted April 2 by a Facebook group called PCI: Predator Catchers Indiana was widely circulated throughout the Brandywine community. The video allegedly shows Stier entering a hotel room in South Bend with the intent to meet a teenager he met on the internet. Instead, Stier was met by adult representatives from the non-law enforcement group, who confronted him about messages exchanged between him and a decoy pretending to be 14 years old.

Stier resigned from his position at Brandywine High School after the video came to light.

In September, Stier was sentenced to three years’ probation, credit for one day served, 90 days electronic monitoring and $1,058 in fines and costs. He was also required to register as a sex offender.

3. New businesses abound

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

In Niles, a new Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen opened, as did Biggby Coffee, Expressions Dance Studio and Lupita’s Dresses, along with several others. Other businesses expanded, like Iron Shoe Distillery and Apothica Teas.

Buchanan also saw many new businesses including Bucktown Boutique, Gustavsen Café, Blue Paw Pet Spa, and River of Life Yoga, just to name a few.

2.  Officer-involved shootings rock Niles City, Township

This fall, the community was shaken by two officer-involved shootings in the city of Niles and Niles Township.

The first occurred Sept. 30 on S. 13th St. in Niles Township after Chaz Nathan McGowen, 28, was shot and killed by Berrien County Sheriff’s Office deputies after charging deputies with a knife.

In December, the Berrien County Prosecutor’s Office determined that, following an investigation, the use of lethal force was justified, and no charges would be filed.

The second occurred Oct. 6 at Ninth and Main streets in the city of Niles following a traffic stop. Michigan State Police reported that the passenger, Isaac Ntabaazi, of a vehicle stopped following a traffic violation exited the vehicle upon request. Once out of the vehicle, a struggle ensued, and shots were fired by both the passenger and trooper. Both were hospitalized, and Ntabaazi was blinded following the incident.

In November, Ntabaazi was arraigned on charges of assault with intent to murder, felon in possession of a firearm, carrying a concealed weapon in an automobile, possession of a firearm with altered identification marks, resisting and obstructing a police officer causing serious impairment and three counts of being in possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

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, which were ultimately revoked.

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.