Barry County is starting a new decade with some projects and new leaders in key posts.
Hastings Area School System Superintendent Dan Remenap and Hastings City Manager Jerry Czarnecki started their roles just months ago.
A new healthy lifestyle initiative called Blue Zones, the only one in Michigan, was launched in Barry County.
A new surgical center is slated to open this year, funded primarily by private donors, connecting health care more deeply to the community it serves.
And the criminal justice system is actively engaged in creative sentencing to address some of the community's toughest issues.
Here are some start-of-the-year outlooks from those particular vantage points and a few more:
Dan Remenap, superintendent of Hastings Area School System
“2020 will be exciting as we start with some major changes: First, we extended recess times for all students PreK-5th grade, so we are excited to see if we notice any changes in learning and or behavior moving forward.
“Also, we are going to be banning cell phones in all buildings this semester. We are excited to see the effects of this change, too, on our high school students' focus, behavior, and attentiveness. We view these to be very positive challenges.
“Looking forward, we are also excited about renovations and projects taking place at Hastings High School – the tennis courts, the track, the bleachers, etc. -- to help with some well-needed upgrades. We are hoping to have these completed by spring,
“Our challenges will continue to be transportation – finding enough bus drivers -- and our very tight budget.”
They are developing ideas to address those challenges, Remenap said, adding, “Stay tuned.”
Kyle Corlett, superintendent of Delton Kellogg Schools
The bond issue that passed seven months ago is fueling changes at Delton Kellogg Schools, including three new buses, new Chromebooks in grades 5-12, new iPads in Kindergarten and first grade, and new sound systems in the high school gym and LGI (large group instruction) auditorium.
Updates will continue this summer, Corlett said, with the updating of the high school bathrooms and reroofing of most of the middle school. There also will be work done on the softball and baseball fields, and many of the parking lots. Plus, a new artificial turf field will be installed.
“A lot of the improvements in the bond, like reroofing the middle school, are really important updates that you can't really see,” Corlett said. “The community should be aware that our top priorities are taking care of the facilities so we can save money in the long run, improving the safety of students, and improving the learning environment for students. And those improvements aren't always evident from the outside looking in.”
“We're extremely thankful for a supportive community.”
Jerry Czarnecki, Hastings city manager
“As we move into a new year, it is always a time of optimism. There are projects related to housing happening throughout the city. This will bring new opportunities to the entire community.
“It will be an opportunity for retail to make an effort to capture these new residents as new customers. It will be an opportunity for business to attract the new residents as new employees. It will be an opportunity for the schools to gain the new residents as new students.
“Hastings is a great place to live, work and play. We will see an opportunity to share that with more people throughout the upcoming year.”
Among issues that the city will be dealing with in 2020 are: Recreational marijuana (the ordinance stating that the city will opt out will sunset on May 30) and the increase of small-cell coverage (5G). “These two issues provide some potential opportunity for revenue, but also create a need to prepare for the management of the issues,” Czarnecki said. “So, we do not want to go running into these without doing our homework.”
These topics will be discussed by the council as they seek opportunities to move forward and pitfalls to avoid, he said.
“Residents will see a couple of road projects happening in the next construction season. Funding and plans are being finalized, but this also will be discussed in the next couple of months at the council level.”
In other developments, a new play structure will be going into Tyden Park in the spring.
“The city is hoping that this will give more opportunities for residents to visit the park,” Czarnecki said. “A focus on updating play equipment in all the parks over the next few years has kicked off.
“Residents can watch for plans and opportunities to help as we move through the year.”
Duane Weeks, Middleville village manager
In Middleville, work is progressing on a mixed-use development at 112 E. Main St., just to the east of the Village Hall. Grand Rapids-based developer A.J. Veneklasen Inc. signed a development agreement with the village in the fall for the project.
The project calls for a three-story building with 3,000 square feet of commercial/retail space on the main floor and 10 apartments on the second and third floors, which could range from one to three bedrooms.
“They're going through their due diligence period,” Weeks said. “They're doing some soil borings and different things, and looking to the (Michigan Economic Development Corp.) for possible funding with that. That component dictates a little bit when this project will get started.”
Once construction begins, the $2.9 million project is expected to take about a year to complete, he said.
In addition to the planned mix of commercial/retail and residential, the project also could include a pathway and a rain garden.
Village officials also plan to update Middleville's land-use plan, which was last updated in 2014. The village Planning Commission is expected to begin discussions later this month on the master plan, which at some point will include input from local residents.
“The bulk of that plan is 15-18 years old. We've seen a lot of change in the community and the desire of the residents (since then),” Weeks said. “I see this as an opportunity to turn the page, start a new canvas and paint a picture that fits the desires of the community at this time.”
One new development occurring just outside the village limits that could impact the community from an economic standpoint, Weeks says, is the recent action by the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund board recommending a $350,000 grant to be used to acquire 26 acres of property to connect the north end of the Paul Henry Thornapple Trail, which currently ends within the Middleville village limits, with the south end of Kent County's Paul Henry Trail system in Caledonia Township.
“I believe once we get that connectivity to the Caledonia trail, we're going to see a major increase in business in the community, using this as a trailhead or a destination. I'm very excited with the possibilities,” Weeks said. “I definitely wish we could snap our fingers and have that open and usable right now, just to tie in with some of the other things that are happening here.”
The purchase includes 2.5 miles of abandoned rail bed, as well as 300 feet of frontage on the Thornapple River. The grant funding must still be approved by the state Legislature.
Angela Ditmar, Spectrum Health Pennock president and market leader
“We have many health care opportunities and challenges to face in 2020, both here in our community and across the nation,” Ditmar said. “I believe that addressing the 'social determinants of health' is both an opportunity and a challenge that will be a game changer in the health care arena.
“Much has been written lately about social determinants of health – the social and economic factors that can impact your health, like where you live, what you eat, how safe you feel and how connected you are to those around you.
“The social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. Without these factors in place, individuals may experience higher rates of disease, health complications and higher costs associated with their health care.
“In fact, a recently published study in the American Journal of Managed Care revealed that individuals with unmet social needs were 68 percent more likely to be readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of discharge.”
Ditmar said a summary of key findings from the 2017 Community Health Needs Assessment showed that the Spectrum Health Pennock area was considered to be a caring, connected, giving, and philanthropic community where foundations provided resources that help ease some of the social issues.
Although resources here may be more limited when compared to other areas, the community connectedness and strong collaborative spirit among people and organizations have made up it, she said.
“Keeping care local and continuing to respond to the increasing behavioral health and substance abuse needs will be imperative,” Ditmar said. “Continuing strong partnerships and collaboration within our service area will be key.”
Barry County Judge Michael Schipper
Barry County Judge Michael Schipper said a top concern is young people and children “because it's our responsibility to protect them.”
From that perspective, vaping is a huge problem.
“We got duped when it was said that vaping would help prevent kids from smoking, that it was better than smoking,” Schipper said. “In fact, vaping is worse.”
But, on the plus side, recent federal legislation that outlaws tobacco use for those under 21 is great news, he said.
Schipper sees a lot of the community's thorniest problems and addictions of all sorts – everything from caffeine to meth – are at the heart of the problems he sees.
“Alcohol abuse is still the No. 1 issue coming through Barry County courts.”
As far as drugs, “we don't see much heroin,” he said.
Meth is the drug. “Mexican cartels are pounding a high potency meth now, concerned about the fact that soon we'll have a closed border.”
And that meth is so cheap, Schipper said, that nobody makes it locally anymore. They just buy what's coming in from elsewhere.
Some of the heavily caffeinated drinks are almost setting kids up, he said, for a natural transition to other drugs. “When you're tired, you need rest. You're not supposed to pound drugs into your body. We just see so many more people addicted. If we have kids who are addicted, they don't magically change. “We have to have great kids if we expect them to be great adults down the road.”
As far as marijuana, “We haven't even seen the tip of the iceburg.”
Schipper said he's been talking about putting together a mentoring program for young men under the age of 25 to provide good role models, someone to help guide them, help them be accountable.”
Barry County courts starts the year with a full complement on the bench.
Judge Donald Johnston, who served as a visiting judge through December, told Schipper that Barry County is a great community.
“He said life here is like Mayberry – with a little more crime.”
Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf
Sheriff Dar Leaf said there appears to be less opioid usage in Barry County, but residents are still using meth.
Leaf echoed Judge Schipper's remarks about the meth from Mexico, saying the meth made there is more pure than what is made by small cooking operations in Michigan, and it can be cut and sold at a lower price.
Leaf said he has not seen a significant upswing in marijuana usage, in minors or adults, since it was legalized late last year.
But some questions of enforcement have been answered in the last year. Although officers don't have a scientific field test for THC blood content as they do for alcohol consumption, Leaf said physical sobriety tests can suffice. As long as the officers fully document the behavior of the suspect, and show they were affected by marijuana, they can make a case for operating while impaired.
Other questions remain: For possession cases, what type of evidence are judges looking for? Leaf said it still needs to be determined whether tests done at the scene will suffice or whether the suspected substance will need to be sent to a lab.
Allison Troyer Wiswell – Blue Zones Activate Director Barry County
First and foremost, Blue Zones launched access to the Blue Zones Online Courses to all residents of Barry County on Jan. 1.
“This is a two-part 2-hour course that you can divide up into a weekly lesson or take in all in one sitting led by Dan Buettner (Blue Zones founder). In Part 1 of the course, Dan shares the nine principles for living the Blue Zones way and gives specific, simple strategies to help put them into practice.”
The intent of Blue Zones is to reduce risk of disease, increasing vitality and longevity.
In Part 2, Buettner will guide participants through a series of activities to provide insights and opportunities to make simple changes that can have profound effects on health and happiness.
“I am working to create networks of volunteers and champions that will help me to promote and communicate what is upcoming to the various townships, villages, city and county,” Troyer Wiswell said. “We are developing training guides for those interested individuals to be rolled out late January-early February.”
Blue Zones Experts will return here to host summits in March and April for Built Environment and Food Systems areas.
“We will begin to create the blueprint for the work, hire grant writers and start moving forward with the identified projects,” she said.
In May, Blue Zones will host the Community Kick Off Individual Engagement event, with the date to be announced.
Pastor Gale Kragt, executive director of Spiritual Care Consultants of West Michigan
Even if there is prosperity in the community and improved health in Barry County, there are still spiritual concerns that Pastor Gale Kragt mentioned.
“We live in an environment where, even though it seems like the economy is getting better, the divide between the rich and poor is not getting better,” he said. “People who are poor are not getting help. And they're not able to get help. The unrest is just going to cause anxiety in the new year for those who lack the financial ability to get help.”
Fortunately, Barry County has a lot of different services in the area to help those in need.
“We are a great county, with food banks and connections to organizations like United Way that help the needy,” he said. “I'm not a doomer and gloomer.
“It's just the fact that the needs are going to continue to grow. So people need to reach out.
“And the different organizations within Barry County need to form an even better net to reach people in the community who need help.
“I'm trusting the Lord for a good year.”