County board approves $2 million for downtown Niles improvements

Published 4:45 pm Friday, June 3, 2022

BERRIEN SPRINGS —  Berrien County Commissioners gave their stamp of approval to a proposed $2 million plus worth of improvements to downtown Niles at their meeting Thursday. The Niles proposal is part of a regional grant request the county is making to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

The grant request also includes projects being proposed by the city of Benton Harbor and Cornerstone Alliance. The MEDC announced earlier this year that they are allocating $100 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for a new Revitalization and Placemaking Program.

The goal of the program is to help communities impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic with real estate and place-based infrastructure development. Local entities receiving funds will have to provide local matching monies from either private or public sources.

Niles Downtown Development Authority Manager Lisa Croteau said the city’s submission is for nine proposed projects totalling over $2 million including four private and five public proposals.

The proposed private projects are new business and apartment space at 115 E. Main St., four apartments and two roofs at 222/226 E. Main St., a new heating/cooling system for 210 E. Main St. and reimbursement to Iron Shoe Distillery for their expansion.

The proposed public projects include refreshing the downtown streetscape which is nearly 20 years old, a new pavilion at Front and Main where the French Market used to be, a synthetic ice skating rink in the pavilion area, a new outdoor HUB dining area and the refurbishing of the public restrooms in the Second Street parking lot, she said.

Croteau noted that the DDA has been working with the MEDC on the outdoor dining area proposal after the city closed the NODE on Second Street earlier this year. She said a presentation about the proposal will be made to the Niles City Council at a Committee of the Whole meeting June 27.

As for the pavilion and ice skating rink, she said that it would take of the city parking lot at Main and Front Streets. The streetscape project would refurbish the current streetscape on Main Street and adjoining side streets.

Thursday’s county board meeting was held Thursday evening in Berrien Springs. Commissioners held their second night meeting of the year at the Berrien County Youth Fair’s Youth Memorial Building. The county board traditionally holds night meetings once a month around the county from spring to fall.

Future county board night meetings are scheduled for July 7 at 19 North Elm St. in Three Oaks, Aug. 4 at the Niles District Library in Niles and Sept. 1 at the Lincoln Charter Township Library in Stevensville. All the night meetings begin at 6 p.m.

Berrien County Youth Fair update

In addition to the action related to the Niles grant application, commissioners heard a presentation from Berrien County Youth Fair Manager Karen Klug and also approved submitting a number of grant applications including ones related to the Berrien County Trial Court’s specialty court programs.

Klug and Fair Board President Corey Burks welcomed commissioners and county residents to the fairgrounds and reminded everyone not only of the dates of this year’s fair, Aug. 15-20, but also the many events held at the fairgrounds most weekends through early October.

“It’s a great week to show what the kids of Berrien County can do,” Klug said. “… We’re building good citizenship, we know the kids are our future.”

Burks noted that the fair’s goal is to educate citizens and especially the youth about the area’s agricultural heritage. He said fair volunteers already reach out to area schools during the year and will do that more in the future.

He reported that the fair was able to secure a $600,000 grant with help from State Sen. Kim LaSata earlier this year and will be building a new public safety building on the fairgrounds this fall. He said the building will be home to fire, police and ambulance personnel and will also be available for training during other parts of the year.

Car insurance reform discussion

In public comments, a group of area residents representing family, nurses and other caregivers of people injured in car accidents asked county commissioners for help. They said that the car insurance reform passed a few years ago has a major flaw that has hurt their loved ones.

Sarah Rhein is a nurse living in Berrien Center. She said that while the car insurance reform had some good elements but also some unanticipated negative consequences with disruptions in being able to get home health care assistance.

She said the funding for those services have been cut by 45 percent across the board although people have opted to remain on unlimited car insurance coverage. Others also expressed their concerns and asked the county board to pass a resolution asking state legislators to fix the law.

A number of county commissioners promised action and County Administrator Brian Dissette said he would do more research and have the county’s corporate counsel prepare a resolution for commissioners to consider. He said from what he’s heard, legislators currently don’t seem interested in addressing the issue.

The county board returns to its regular schedule of Thursday morning meetings next week with a committee of the whole meeting at 8:35 a.m., committee meetings at 9:30 a.m. and the county board meeting at 10:30 a.m. Meetings are held at the Berrien County Administration Building in St. Joseph and are live-streamed on YouTube.