Stories of triumph, tragedies & marijuana dominate in 2018

TRI-CITY AREA — Triumph, tragedy and everything in between made for a range of news headlines in 2018.

What follows is a recap of the major stories that appeared in the pages of the Tri-City Times over the last 12 months.

On the business beat

News on the local business front was mostly positive. The community welcomed new enterprises and other established entities announced their plans to expand.

Newcomers included the Love’s Travel Stop in Capac; Almont’s newest restaurant, Roots and a new urgent care facility in Imlay City, Total Urgent Care, among others.

Imlay City’s well-known Mulefoot Gastropub announced plans to transition the fine dining spot into a simpler, more budget-friendly restaurant that remained focused on seasonal, locally-produced food. The new look became official in May with a new name too, Hiram’s Tavern.

Expansion was on the minds of local manufacturers including Vintech, Springfield Industries and Gallop Brush.

Vintech Industries opted to build a new warehouse at their Almont site and was granted a 12 year facilities tax exemption by the township. Business representatives said the project would generate at least 30 new jobs.

In Imlay City, Springfield Industries purchased two lots in the city’s industrial park with intentions to build a 20,000-square-foot production and warehousing facility valued between $1.5 and $2 million.

Gallop Brush, another industrial park tenant, determined they needed more space and began construction to double their work space, putting their facility at 62,000 square feet. The city also granted the company a tax exemption with the promise that they’ll hire four full-time employees.

Twenty-eighteen was a year of change for Pinnacle Foods, one of the area’s largest employers.

In October, a deal was finalized that saw Conagra Brands acquiring Pinnacle Foods in a deal valued at $10 billion. That acquisition included Vlasic’s Imlay City facility, Pinnacle’s lone pickle processing plant.

Conagra officials said they had no immediate plans for the Vlasic brand or operations. In December, Conagra announced they would close Pinnacle’s headquarters and a second facility, both in New Jersey, in 2019.

School news

There was lots of action to cover in our local school districts in 2018. Many racked up awards, introduced new programs and tackled important infrastructure projects.

Several schools were honored to receive accolades over the last calendar year.

Dryden High School came out on top in Lapeer County for having the highest SAT scores in English and math. Additionally, they netted the best scores in several PSAT categories. District leaders credited a new SAT prep class program for the strong showings.

For the third time in ten years, Imlay City High School was named one of “America’s Best” high schools by U.S. News and World Report in September and in December, they were named to the College Board’s 8th Annual Advanced Placement District Honor Roll for expanding access to Advanced Placement (AP) coursework and improved test scores.

This spring, Almont Community Schools scored well in the Michigan Department of Education’s new “School Data Index Report,” that’s designed to measure student growth and performance.

Based on the results, Almont earned a rating of 96.65, out of a possible score of 100 in categories like graduation rates, school quality and student success.

Both Imlay City and Almont school districts, seeking to connect students with positive male role models, launched their own Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students) programs at Borland and Orchard Primary schools, respectively.

Response to the initiatives was extremely positive and the schools report there’s no shortage of dads, stepdads, grandfathers, uncles and community members wanting to volunteer during the school day. DOGS have the option of doing a variety of things like interacting with kids on the playground or cafeteria and assisting in the classroom.

At Capac Community Schools, facility upgrades dominated many of the 2018 headlines. Utilizing bond monies approved by voters in May 2017, the district was able to make major building repairs, resurface parking lots and sidewalks and install new security measures including a new camera/door buzzer system at each school building.

In November, school officials from Imlay City and Dryden announced their early plans to create a football co-op between the two districts. The plan calls for the Dryden district to pay for their student athletes to attend practices and Imlay City will host and supervise all but one “home” contest for each program level—middle school, freshman, JV and varsity. That will allow Dryden to have a fall Homecoming event and host their annual “Pink Out” game.

The co-op team will use Imlay City’s school identity, mascot and colors.

Law and order

First responders were kept busy in 2018 responding to a range of incidents including several tragedies that resulted in lives lost.

In March, Shirley Pfeil was tragically killed in her Riley Township home by a stray bullet.

Investigators say a 21-year-old man was target practicing at a residence southwest of the Pfeil residence when a bullet entered Pfeil’s home, striking and killing the 73-year-old.

In May, the suspect, Michael Vultaggio, pled guilty to two charges—one count of careless discharge of a firearm resulting in death and lying to a police officer during an investigation. He was sentenced to serve a minimum of 90 days in jail plus more than $12,000 in restitution.

The story drew media attention due to the circumstances of the case and the victim’s family seeking leniency for the shooter in court.

An incident at Imlay City High School on March 19, 2018, resulted in the arrest of an expelled male student for threatening his former girlfriend and her new boyfriend.

The suspect, 19-year-old Colin Clay Owen, entered the high school at around 2:20 p.m. with the alleged intention of collecting personal items from the girl.

Because Owen had been expelled and was not allowed on school property, school officials encountered the youth upon his arrival and advised him to leave the premises.

It was reported that Owen had possession of a knife and that earlier in the day, he had sent out text messages threatening to kill the new boyfriend and himself.

When police arrived at the scene, Owen had fled on foot, leading police on a search of the area near the school.

Several hours later, police received a tip that he was hiding in the attic of a residence on Palmer Street in Imlay City.

In response to the tip, police were able to locate the suspect and take him into custody. He was arraigned in 71-A District Court on multiple felony charges, including making terrorist threats, and was placed on a $250,000 bond.

Lapeer County Prosecutor Mike Sharkey reported that Owen had been jailed eight times since 2015, and held on three separate occasions for larceny and alcohol-related convictions for 259 days.

In August, a double tragedy unfolded in Imlay City. What started out as a tragic accident, evolved into a hit-and-run fatality, a suicide and two families mourning the loss of loved ones.

Imlay City Police were dispatched to the Imlay City Big Boy at around 10:30 a.m., where a southbound vehicle struck and killed a motorcyclist as he was attempting to exit the restaurant’s parking area.

The victim, 54-year-old Rick Dahn of Imlay City, was pronounced deceased at the scene.

By the time police arrived, George Waschull, 47, the driver of the Jeep that struck Dahn, fled the scene on foot, leading police on an extensive search of the area.

A police search of Waschall’s vacated vehicle resulted in the discovery of 16 rifles and handguns, most of them loaded.

Though the search continued for some time, police were unable to locate the suspect.

At around 3 a.m. on Aug. 4, Waschall’s body was discovered in a nearby field, where he had died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.

On Oct. 16, 2018, Imlay City police arrested three Detroit-area women at the Imlay City Dairy Queen, for allegedly passing counterfeit $100 bills at local businesses.

Due to police and newspaper reports about earlier incidents in Imlay City and Marlette, Police said employees at the Dairy Queen grew suspicious of the bills presented them at around 7:50 p.m. on Oct. 16.

The three African American women were driving a silver, 4-door Dodge Avenger, the same type of vehicle described by witnesses in similar incidents.

Imlay City Police Chief said the suspects used the change from larger bills to purchase VISA gift cards and other merchandise.

In addition to the October incidents, in late September of 2018, Marlette Police had issued an alert about counterfeit $20 and $5 bills being circulated in that community over a period of several days.

In late November, multiple fire departments responded to a fire at Pavement Recycling Inc., a business on S. Blacks Corners Road. Thick smoke hung over Imlay City that day and school-related traffic had to be re-routed.

Firefighters determined that sparks from a grinder in the building’s repair shop caused the blaze. That portion of the building was considered a total loss.

Although the incident happened across the country, the Tri-City community was saddened to hear about the death of 2017 Almont High School graduate, Ethan Barclay-Weberpal. The teen joined the Marine Corp last year and was stabbed to death by a fellow Marine in mid-January at Camp Pendleton in California.

According to media reports, 18-year-old Raymond Begay was sentenced in August to serve seven years of confinement at Camp Pendleton for Barclay-Weberpal’s death.

Begay claims he was joking around and only intended to poke the victim with the knife he had recently purchased, claiming he didn’t realize how sharp it was.

Marijuana matters

Discussions over pot were ongoing in several communities throughout 2018.

In the villages of Capac and Almont, elected leaders considered how medical marijuana facilities might benefit their tax base.

In Almont, residents resoundedly rejected any and all proposed plans for opening medical marijuana facilities in the community.

By “opting in” to the terms of Michigan’s Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act in January, Almont Village officials could explore the possibilities of accepting applications and offering licenses to individuals wishing to take advantage of economic opportunities related to the growing, processing, testing, transporting and sale of medical marijuana.

When it became evident that many residents opposed the idea, Almont Village Council members decided to compile a 10-question survey to gauge residents’ support for or opposition to medical marijuana businesses within the village limits.

Village Manager Mike Connors reported that 2,534 surveys were mailed out to village residents and property owners in early to mid-March, out of which fewer than 500 were returned.

Based on the survey results, 64.27% of respondees said “no” to medical marijuana operations, while 35.27% responded in favor.

Given the sentiments of residents, village council members voted 5-2 on April 3, to rescind their earlier 4-3 decision to opt in to the MMFLA.

In Capac, the council considered an ordinance that would have allowed entrepreneur Matt Roman to construct a large grow and processing facility on Capac Road.

Like Almont, the council conducted a survey among residents that showed a slight majority were in favor of the new business.

Ultimately, Roman withdrew his plans for the development within the village limits and the council voted to indefinitely table the facilities ordinance and keep the document for future reference.

Roman made his original proposal to the council in Sept. 2017, claiming that the business would create 284 new jobs with an average salary of $62,000.

At first the proposed new business and ordinance didn’t draw much public attention but as the months went on, local law enforcement and some citizens began to express concerns over public safety, drug use, environmental effects and the impact on local utilities. Others who supported the concept believed the business would give the local economy a boost through tax revenues and well paying jobs.

Pot-related business matters appeared on municipal agendas again in late 2018 after Michigan voters approved legalized recreational use of the drug.

In response, several townships—including Almont, Berlin and Mussey—adopted ordinances prohibiting any type of marijuana businesses and others are expected to follow suit in 2019.

Work began in Almont on renovating and expanding the joint village/township municipal building. By mid-November, the police department was able to relocate into their new 3,000 square foot offices immediately east of the existing building.

In October, the Friends of the Capac Library realized a major milestone in their facade renovation project thanks to the community and a grant from the Community Foundation of St. Clair County. The foundation pledged $81,000 to the Friends group with a 50 percent match from the local organization. The Friends met their $40,500 fundraising goal this summer and in October, the foundation formally presented a check to Friends’ members Patti Weyhrauch and Mary Klug.

Metal sheeting was removed from the front exterior in 2015 revealing brickwork with unique designs. Since then, that portion has been covered with plastic sheeting to protect it from the weather. The local fundraising campaign was officially called “Capac Friends: Plastic Ends.”

The facade work, slated to be complete sometime in 2019, is part of an overall library expansion project that got underway in 2013.

Dryden Police Chief Larry Pack retired from his post in September as part of his 28 year career in law enforcement and 14 years at the helm of Dryden’s department.

In August, Dryden Township Board members presented Pack with a plaque commemorating his “meritorious service and dedication to the people of Dryden Township.”

Soon after, longtime Dryden Police Sgt. Shawn Peters was named as Pack’s successor.

The year 2018 was a banner year for Lapeer County EMS, who saw its countywide ambulance service grow three-fold during the past year.

On the heels of a successful 1-mill tax proposal in Nov. 2016 to fund the service for four years, the LCEMS Board followed through on its promise to better serve the residents.

They did so by opening fully-staffed bases in the Metamora/Hadley area, in Goodland Township, and most recently in Dryden Township; where a new base opened on Dryden Road, east of Bishop Road.

The newest base will serve both the Dryden and Almont areas, which had been previously been viewed as “underserved” areas in Lapeer County.

Lapeer County EMS was formed in 1997 through the merger of the former Lapeer Area Ambulance Service, North Branch Area Ambulance Service and Imlay City Dept. of Public Safety.

Due to budgetary issues, challenges from outside competition and leadership issues, the ambulance service fell upon hard times; resulting in the placement of the millage on the 2016 ballot.

Having survived a very close millage victory (21,706 in favor to 20,174 opposed) in 2016, the current LCEMS Board has been able to balance the budget and grow the service and increase emergency response times to residents in formerly underserved communities.

An election year

Voters headed to the polls in both August and November to weigh in on ballot proposals and funding requests, plus choose elected leaders.

On Aug. 7, Imlay City residents voted 333 to 252 to approve construction of a new $3 million Imlay City fire hall on E. Borland Rd., east of M-53 (Van Dyke).

Passage of the 2.04-mill proposal will result in an average tax increase of $100 to $200 for a period of 20 years. The increase takes effect in 2019.

While the need for a new hall had been discussed for some time, city commissioners had previously opted not to place a millage to fund a new hall on the election ballot.

Following the millage’s passage, Imlay City Manager Tom Youatt acknowledged the commission and city residents for recognizing the need and voting for construction of a new fire department.

“I’m proud of our city commissioners for taking on the task and proud of our residents for approving the millage,” said Youatt.

“This was a project we could no longer keep kicking down the road.”

New but familiar names will assume posts in Lansing in January where they’ll represent Lapeer and St. Clair counties. Among them are former state representatives, Dan Lauwers (81st district) and Kevin Daley (82nd district) who have ascended to jobs in the Michigan Senate, the 25th and 31st districts, respectively.

Imlay City goes ‘Busker’

After 37 years of hosting an annual Blueberry Festival, the Imlay City Chamber of Commerce decided to ditch the past in favor of something completely new.

What resulted was the creation of the 1st annual “Michigan Busker Fest,” which took place June 15-16 in downtown Imlay City.

Not only did the Chamber decide to change the name and theme of the traditional summer festival, they moved the date to Father’s Day weekend, which ruffled the feathers of supporters of the former Blueberry Festival.

Despite the opposition and criticism, the Busker Fest attracted its own fan base, which came to see the menagerie of street performers including acrobats, magicians, mimes, fire acts, musicians and more.

The Chamber of Commerce Board apparently saw enough of a future for the Busker Fest to schedule a return event in June 14-15 of 2019.

• • • • •

Here’s a snapshot of some of the stories that engaged our readers online through Facebook and our website,

•Home where the heart is: a feature on former Almont kindergarten teacher Roberta Warren who now resides in “The Bells,” the village’s new senior citizen apartment complex created in the former Almont Elementary School by the Novak family.

•Big cat on prowl: In January, someone along S. Summers Road in Imlay Twp. thought they saw a big cat that resembled a cougar. The Lapeer County Sheriff’s Department was dispatched to the scene and said that windy conditions made it impossible to examine tracks in the snow.

•Hope in face of destruction: Readers reached out to offer help and donations to the Hispanic Service Center after Lapeer County’s only home for the homeless on North Almont Avenue had been heavily damaged.

Staff writer Tom Wearing contributed to the story.