A devastating fire at the Country Smoke House in October shuttered operations at the Almont Township business. The Francis family hopes to reopen sometime in the spring of 2020.

TRI-CITY AREA — The following is a recap of some of the major news stories that appeared on the pages of the Tri-City Times during the past year.
• On Jan. 2, Almont Village Council members surprised community members by approving by a 4-3 vote, a first reading of an ordinance to dissolve the village’s Downtown Development Authority as a way to save money. In the days and weeks that followed, DDA Board members rallied support from the community to the point that the Council opted to postpone a vote on the DDA’s dissolution to mid-March. With angry and frustrated DDA supporters showing up en masse at meetings, on Jan. 15, council member Stephen A. Schneider suggested the council revisit the matter and vote again; this time to rescind the original vote to disband the DDA. On Feb. 5, the council took that vote and the DDA was left intact.
• In the early hours of Feb. 26, Imlay City firefighters, police and emergency crews responded to a home fire at the Maple Grove mobile home community. Despite valiant efforts on the part of firefighters and rescue crews, three of the Kelley siblings—six-year-old Keith II, five-year-old Keyondre and three-year-old KeyannaRae—perished in the blaze. Their parents, Krystal Whitney and Keith Kelley Sr., and a 19-month-old brother, were seriously injured and transferred to Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Sadly, 28-day-old infant, Keyairah Kelley, died the following day from her injuries.
In the weeks that ensued, it was determined that the fire was not the result of a faulty furnace or alternate heat source as first thought. There remained continued concerns that the home may not have been equipped with functioning smoke alarms.
• In response to the tragic loss of life in the mobile home fire, Imlay City Fire Capt. Scott Stone announced March 5, that the Imlay City Firemen’s Association was mounting a campaign to raise money to purchase and install new smoke detectors in every home at the mobile home park. The communitywide collection effort resulted in more than $11,000 in donations, and on April 27, dozens of firefighters and volunteers installed smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors in 150 residences at the Maple Grove Estates mobile home community.
• On April 18, Imlay City officials and local stakeholders broke ground on a new Imlay City Fire Hall on a 2.66-acre site on E. Borland Rd., east of Van Dyke (M-53). The site was formerly owned and occupied by the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources. The new $3 million facility will be paid for using voter-approved millage funds to be paid over a period of 20 years.
• On May 6, a 14-year-old Almont Middle School girl shared with classmates a harrowing account of being under the control of 21-year-old male predator she met online. With her parents in the audience at a prearranged program at the school, Laura Oliver revealed some of the details of her three-day ordeal that ended with her fortuitous escape and joyful reunion with parents, family and friends.
“I regret ever talking with someone that I didn’t know through social media,” Laura told her classmates. “Every day I regret getting into that car with that guy. I will for the rest of my life.”
• On May 30, following weeks of contentious discussion and negotiations with Almont school bus drivers and union members, the Almont Board of Education agreed to sign a five-year contract for bus services with Dean Transportation of Lansing. School Board President Paul Bowman said the change will translate to about $100,000 in savings in the second year of the Dean contract, which took effect on July 1, 2019.
• The Hundred Club of Genesee, Lapeer and Shiawassee counties honored members of the Imlay City Fire and Police departments plus Lapeer County Sheriff deputies at the group’s Heroes Night program.
The first responders were recognized for their efforts at the scene of the Feb. 26 house fire in Imlay City that claimed the life of four Kelley children.
Imlay City firefighters received multiple honors in the months’ following the fire, including accolades from state and local firefighter associations.
• The Imlay City Chamber of Commerce hosted their second annual Michigan Busker Fest on June 14-15. The two-day event featured street performers like freestyle dancer Snap Boogie, kids activities, a parade, 5K run and more.
• Ag Community Relief moved their popular Barn Bash fundraising event to the Eastern Michigan State Fairgrounds on June 29. Proceeds from the event help the group purchase and deliver supplies to farmers and ranchers across the country affected by natural disasters.
• On July 11-13, the aroma of lavender could be detected throughout Imlay City as the community became the new site for the 17th annual Michigan Lavender Festival. During the course of the three-day event, thousands of lavender-loving ladies and gentlemen enjoyed activities at the Eastern Michigan State Fairgrounds and Indigo Lavender Farms, owned by business entrepreneur Trish Dennis.
• On July 28, just days after power was restored after strong winds and a thunderstorm knocked out electrical power to hundreds of local residences, the Village of Almont experienced yet another electrical outage. This time the outage was blamed not on weather, but on an electrical malfunction at the DTE Energy substation at Almont and Kidder roads. To deal with the frequency of power outages, DTE installed large temporary generators to accommodate increased demand.
In October, DTE officials told Almont Township they plan to submit the necessary documentation to the planning commission in early 2020 for a new $20 million substation to be constructed on Kidder Rd.
• A memorial service was held August 10 at Lamb Steele Park for the Kelley children who perished in the February house fire. Family and friends joined Krystal Whitney, Keith Kelley Sr. and their two year-old son Keyshawn to honor the lives of Keith II, Keyondre, KeyannaRae and Keyairah Kelley. The event featured a bounce house, a clown, chalk drawing and a meal. Classmates of the Kelley children were also invited to attend. Keith II, Keyondre and KeyannaRae were all students at Weston Elementary School.
Imlay City Fire Chief Rick Horton and firefighter Craig Ross presented a plaque to the family that will eventually hang in the department’s new fire hall as a way to remember the children.
Whitney and family members also took the time to thank the community for their outpouring of support and acknowledge the efforts of first responders to save the children.
• The final phase in the Capac Library expansion and renovation project got underway in August when crews from Sanctum Contracting starting making repairs to the Main Street buildings’ facade.
The work, being paid for with a combination of grant dollars and funds raised by the Friends of the Capac Library group, encompasses brick repair, replacement of two cornices, new upper windows, new awnings, new lighting and signage, a new interior book drop box and more.
• One man died and another was injured in a shooting that occurred in the early morning hours of September 8 on Hollow Corners Road in Dryden Twp. Lydell Dukes, a 37-year-old Ferndale resident, was charged with open murder in the shooting death of Jason Stefanski and faces one count of assault with intent to murder for shooting and injuring Nicholas Palazzolo. Stefanski’s body was discovered in a Hollow Corners Road ditch in the early morning hours by police who responded to the area for reports of gun shots.
Stefanski, 35, was a resident of Rockford with family ties to the Almont area and Palazzolo, 29, is a resident of Cadillac.
Lapeer County Sheriff deputies were able to track Dukes after he left the scene of the shooting. He did not initially comply with orders and subsequently led officers on a slow speed pursuit before crashing into two sheriff cruisers just north of Lapeer on M-24.
The shooting rattled residents in the normally quiet Dryden Township area but local law enforcement stressed that this was an isolated incident and there was no threat to the public.
• On Sept. 12, tragedy struck again in Imlay City, when a 38-year-old construction worker was reported dead at the scene of a “trench cave-in” at the Imlay Place Condominium complex. Imlay City police, firefighters and DPW staff responded and attempted to extricate the buried victim through the process of hand-digging.
While Craig E. Wagner Jr.’s death was initially considered accidental, investigations by Imlay City Police and autopsy results suggested Wagner died from blunt trauma to the head caused by excavating equipment being used at the worksite.
On Oct. 1, the Imlay City Police Department requested a criminal warrant from Lapeer County Prosecutor Mike Sharkey, charging the equipment operator with criminal intent. As of press time, Sharkey had not issued a warrant in the case.
• Todd Courser, Lapeer County’s onetime state representative, was sentenced to serve 12 months probation after he pled no contest to one count of willful neglect of duty by a public officer.
Courser resigned from his post in 2015 after being accused of attempting to use taxpayer dollars to cover up his extramarital affair with fellow Republican house member Cindy Gamrat. The criminal charge stemmed from Courser allegedly lying to a special Select Committee of House members who were reviewing an investigation that uncovered Courser’s misconduct and misuse of taxpayer resources while in office.
• Shortly after midnight on Friday, Oct. 4, fire broke out at the Country Smoke House on M-53 in Almont Township. Several fire departments from the Tri-City area responded to the blaze at the popular meat processing facility. By the time the smoke settled, the building had incurred fire, smoke, heat and water damage to about 90% of the Smoke House’s retail and meat processing areas. Owners Steve and Sue Francis were forced to close the business and lay off many of their 50-plus employees. The results of a fire investigation by Michigan State Fire Marshals, Almont Fire Department and insurance investigators revealed the fire started when lint ignited in a dryer vent and spread to the building’s roof.
The business owners are doing what they can to make new and sell existing product in the interim. They are currently looking at reopening the business in spring of 2020.
• After years of service to local veterans and the community, members of Almont American Legion Post 479 decided to sell their longtime home at 117 School Street in Almont. On Oct. 4, Post Commander Dick Bowman announced a land contract arrangement between the Legion and DoRich Leasing, LLC (owners of Chicky’s Paradise Lounge). While the building itself has been sold, Bowman said the Almont American Legion’s 32 current members plan to maintain their Legion Charter status and will meet at alternate locations. They will also continue to conduct their traditional Memorial Day ceremony at Burley Park, sell poppies and place new American flags on veterans’ gravesites at all cemeteries in Almont Village and Township.
• In response to a confirmed case of Eastern Equine Encephalitis, state and Lapeer County health officials coordinated an aerial pesticide application in portions of Arcadia, Attica and Goodland townships in October. The disease, contracted by mosquito bites, claimed the life of a horse in the Lum area.
• On Nov. 5, 61% of Imlay City school district residents approved a $36.8 million bond proposal by a vote of 1,509 in favor and 959 opposed. The “no tax increase” bond will pay for new construction and upgrades to include a new 500-seat performing arts center for about $14.2 million; a six-classroom addition at Weston Elementary for about $3 million; 19 new buses; paving of parking lots, roof repairs, updates to electrical and cooling systems; security and technology upgrades; and renovations to the district’s school media centers.
• Reconstruction of Capac Road in Berlin Township wrapped up in November. The St. Clair County Road Commission’s $3.6 million project included crushing existing asphalt, installing new pavement, shoulder widening, ditch clean out, storm sewer and culvert replacement, aggregate shoulders and more.
• On Nov. 21, Almont Village and Township officials co-hosted a joint meeting to hear a proposal from local partners wanting to develop an 80-acre parcel for up to 200 new homes, retail spaces and a medical facility at the northeast intersection of M-53 (Van Dyke) and Hough Rd. Those seeking to develop the property are Dan Walker of Aurora Realty; his father, businessman Roger Walker; and owners of Blake’s Farms. For the project to move forward, the Village of Almont would have to extend sewer and water services to the site, located within Almont Township. The consensus was that an engineering study would first need to be conducted by Rowe Professional Services.
• In mid-December, Almont Schools Supt. Dr. William Kalmar responded strongly to allegations in social media and Detroit-area media, charging that Almont football players, band members, fans and residents took part in racial attacks and slurs against Detroit Denby football players during their Division 5 semifinal game (36-8) win at Walled Lake on Nov. 23.
Kalmar said there was no evidence to confirm such allegations based on the study of game and post-game videos; interviews of witnesses and spectators; along with information provided by Walled Lake Police and officials from the Michigan High School Athletic Association. The game had to be suspended with about 3 minutes on the clock, due to repeated penalties and blatant fouls by Denby players. Kalmar said he had made repeated efforts to contact Denby school officials and Detroit Public Schools Supt. Dr. Nikolai Vitti, but without any direct response.
With their win over Denby, the Raiders advanced to the state
finals at Ford Field where they fell to Lansing Catholic 31-17 on November 30.

Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.