Tuscola County saw a mixed bag of news in 2016, from the exciting mastodon bone dig near Mayville to an alleged kidnapping in the Millington area described as the “ultimate nightmare.”
It’s impossible to find a common thread among all stories, though many of the stories dealt with change that can be seen already and could be on the way in 2017.
The Advertiser chose the top stories based on impact to the area, along with the amount of coverage garnered, and feedback received one way or another, including via The Advertiser’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/TuscolaToday
And easy to see as we look back, almost all of the stories will continue to affect part or all of Tuscola County heading into the new year.
Caro’s big blunder
Readers would be hard-pressed to find a Tuscola County story bigger than the $1.2 million rum microdistillery and restaurant project proposed for downtown Caro that would never see the light of day – at least in the county seat.
Scott Romain, a Caro native, planned the project at the former location of Annie’s Attic, 119-121 N. State St. – most recently an indoor flea market where people would pay about $5 a day to set up a table and sell their stuff, kind of like a garage sale.
Emails would later show that Romain was invited to a September Caro City Council meeting to present his plan as part of the “Business Spotlight” section of the meeting.
Many would say he was ambushed.
Former Mayor Dick Pouliot tipped off the board of directors at the Caro Assembly of God, 1543 Van Geisen Rd., Caro, who showed up to protest the plan. Caro City Council members took Romain to task for not being prepared enough during the meeting – as in not being prepared to answer the kind of questions that would come from a blueprint. They quickly voted against recommending he receive the necessary liquor licenses from the state because the site was too close to Caro Assembly of God’s Blessing Center located about a block down on State Street.
The backlash was tremendous. On Oct. 3, Caro City Council chambers filled with citizens expressing confusion, anger, and general outrage at the council’s rapid dismissal of the investment that downtown Caro desperately needs. Former Caro City Manager Jared Olson quit, and Pouliot would be ousted from office mere weeks later in the November election.
Elected officials would later backtrack and say there were “other reasons” (though the official reason given to the state was the proximity to the church), but the damage was done and Romain pulled the project off the table.
As of press time, there appears to be no activity at the site where the Romain project would have been located – other than the dead leaves that have collected in the doorways.
Caro’s new mayor
The city of Caro’s new mayor – Joe Greene – was sworn in Nov. 10 after a whirlwind write-in campaign that lasted only a couple of weeks. It would be all he needed.
Greene ousted former mayor Dick Pouliot by a vote of 844-647. By comparison, Pouliot ran unopposed for his most recent term and was elected with 135 votes.
Greene decided to run at the last minute after Caro City Council’s mishandling of the microdistillery project previously mentioned. At one point during a council meeting, Greene even stepped away from the council’s table to address the board and stated that “we stopped business.”
Once Greene made his intentions to run official, he was supported with signs that quickly popped up, advertisements in print newspapers (including The Advertiser) and a very active social media effort.
Downtown Vassar’s business boom
For months, there had been no shortage of talk about new businesses coming to downtown Vassar.
The talk became more than that in 2016, the year seven new businesses – including three restaurants and a bakery – opened in a one-block stretch of East Huron Avenue (M-15) between Main Street and Cass Avenue.
Rebel Soul, a women’s clothing and accessories store, started the trend early in 2016. SweetCakes Cakery followed suit, as did Sambuca Café, CandyLand Ice Cream & Gifts, Riverside Grill, Kara & Company dance studio and Sam & Ruby’s The Corner Café/Deli.
The new merchants including Betty Burley, owner of CandyLand Ice Cream & Gifts, also spearheaded creation of two first-time festivals in Vassar: the Fall Harvest Festival in September and the Holly Jolly Festival in December.
The seven new businesses, too, seemed to feed off of each other in a positive way.
Tuscola III Wind Energy Center
Juno Beach, Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources L.L.C. wants to build the Tuscola III Wind Energy Center in Fairgrove, Almer and Ellington townships. It carries a price tag of about $200 million.
Construction was supposed to be underway by the end of 2016. Records show the company was securing wind lease agreements as far back as 2014.
Plans were close to being realized until about a year ago, when a small group of citizens that grew to be a larger group of citizens questioned the priorities of elected officials: health, safety and welfare of all citizens or profits for NextEra Energy Resources and those who leased land to the company?
Meetings held throughout the year lasted three hours or more in some cases, and became quite contentious at times.
Several of the citizens with big concerns – members of the so-called Ellington-Almer Concerned Citizens Group – took action and ran for office. When it was all said and done, only three of 12 elected officials in Ellington and Almer townships would be re-elected.
Though NextEra Energy Resources’ officials filed the application for special land use permits in each community, elected officials in Almer and Ellington townships approved a one-year moratorium on wind turbine projects. The purpose, they say, is to ensure health, safety and welfare are top priorities.
With the application outstanding and several meetings set for early January in both communities, this one hits the ground running in 2017.
Mastodon bones near Mayville
On Sept. 28, The Advertiser was the first to report on a planned dig for mastodon bones at The Fowler Center for Outdoor Living near Mayville.
The story exploded and became widely reported as a team led by paleontologists from the University of Michigan moved in with plans to unearth the remains of a mastodon estimated to be 10,000 to 14,000 years old.
They successfully removed many bones, including almost a full mastodon skull.
The story garnered attention from across the country (including The New York Times) and into other parts of the world with the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail even weighing in with its version of the story.
Cass City’s grocery stores
In May, The Advertiser was the first to report two grocery-store developers are battling to bring home the bacon – in the form of a new supermarket – to Cass City.
Mark Molter of Texas – who proposes a $5.8 million store in downtown Cass City – and Jim Zyrowski, the owner of Ben’s Supercenters in Marlette and Brown City who proposes a $6 million supermarket in Cass City, both appeared before the Cass City Village Council in May.
Molter’s Cass City Market is being planned for the southeast corner of Main and Oak streets, on a site now housing Cass City Antique Mall, Cass City Rotary Park and the former Fairway Discount Store.
Zyrowski indicated following the meeting that he plans a $6 million Ben’s Supercenter along M-81 on the western edge of Cass City, adjacent to the Dollar General store on land now housing a Frankenmuth Credit Union automated teller machine. A sign on the site stated it’s the future home to Ben’s Supercenter.
Both developers claim they plan to open in 2017.
‘Ultimate nightmare’ in Millington
People in Tuscola County and the surrounding area were horrified when The Advertiser first reported in early August the alleged kidnapping and rape of an 8-year-old in the Millington area.
David Alex Brigham, Unionville, is charged with 24 counts related to the alleged abduction.
The charges include two counts of kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment and 18 counts of criminal sexual conduct. Brigham faces up to life in prison on eight of the counts related to kidnapping and first-degree criminal sexual conduct, which by legal definition includes sexual penetration.
Mark Reene, prosecutor, Tuscola County, would say at the time that the child has been placed in protective custody and undergoing extensive counseling and treatment.
“This case is amongst the worst we’ve seen,” Reene told The Advertiser. “It’s the ultimate nightmare. When you have a child this age, in these circumstances, and what has happened – that is what aptly describes it – a nightmare.”
Reene said the child was abducted from a home in “the area of Swaffer Road in Millington” sometime during the early morning hours of July 30.
Brigham remains in jail and the matter is expected to resume in court in early 2017, pending results from a psychiatric exam he took during the fall.
Former Reese village president gets jail
In September, former Reese Village President Gerald Ellison was sentenced to 11 months in Midland County jail for stealing about $48,000 from his former employer.
Ellison, 54, received the sentence from Midland Circuit Court Judge Stephen Carras for attempted larceny in a building.
He had been charged with five counts of embezzlement (between $1,000 and $20,000) and received a delayed sentence of one year on those charges as part of a plea deal that also included making full restitution to his former employer, Ware-Smith-Woolever Funeral Home. The charges could be dismissed after a year.
The story doesn’t end there, however, as Reese village council members voted to summon state police to investigate money allegedly missing from the volunteer fire and rescue budget since 2012. The investigation is pending.
Tuscola County’s big election
Voters across Tuscola County were apparently ready for change when it came to local government officials. There are too many election results to list here. You can check out the story by The Advertiser at http://tinyurl.com/jgeofvg
Among the highlights:
- Republican Party newcomer Russell Speirs defeated write-in candidate Duane Lockwood, 445 to 147, to become the new Ellington Township supervisor.
- In Almer Township, incumbent Democrat Charles Dennis (414 votes) lost his trustee seat as voters opted to pick four Republicans: challengers Jim Tussey (639 votes), Art Graff (615 votes) and Jim Rosenstangel (601 votes) and incumbent Brian Schriber (529 votes).
- Village of Reese voters settled a five-person race for three trustee seats by choosing Pete Bouvy (389 votes), John Weber (369 votes) and Brian Weihl (343 votes) over Denise Fielbrandt (330 votes) and Jamie Comer (261 votes).
- Mayville voters made Barbara Valentine their new village president, by a 182-154 margin over Tony Windham. Valentine takes over for Clare Fryers who steps down from the post.
- Arbela Township voters, in the southwest corner of Tuscola County, ousted incumbent Democrat Kenneth Panek, the township supervisor, by electing Republican Joseph B. “Joe” White, 754 to 687. Panek unseated White four years ago.
- Watertown Township Republican Frank Worvie unseated Supervisor Danny Quertermous, a Democrat, 608 to 357.
Cass River/Caro Dam
The Cass River Greenways volunteer group and others are intent on making the entire Cass River a body of water that the region can be proud of and serve as an attraction — and steps were taken in 2016 to make it happen.
As The Advertiser reported earlier this month, seven counties in and around Michigan’s Thumb are banding together to promote regional “eco-tourism” centering on the Cass River.
And as The Advertiser was the first to report in August, a group of local volunteers and government officials seek to earn the Cass River the prestigious status of a National Water Trail.
However, the Caro Dam is in rough shape and in desperate need of repair.
In a special report on July 20, The Advertiser reported on problems at the privately owned Caro Dam (a broken gate) and the resulting drop in water levels.
Since then, there was some attempt to clean up debris that had accumulated at the gate – but it seems only to have cleared the way for water to drain from the Cass River at a faster rate as water levels in the upper Cass continue dropping and no one (publicly) seems to be addressing the problem.
Local doctor faces ‘pill-mill’ charges
A well-known urologist and convicted felon hailed by his lawyer as saving “millions of men’s lives from prostate cancer” posted $100,000 bond and left the Tuscola County Jail on Thursday – after being charged with seven crimes. (see story)
Dr. Joseph E. Oesterling, 60, of Ann Arbor, was charged with running a criminal enterprise, maintaining a drug building and five counts of delivery of a controlled substance. Prosecutors accuse him of running several “pill-mills” in mid-Michigan, but his lawyer, Saginaw attorney Alan A. Crawford, said Oesterling isn’t embarrassed about the charges.
“He’s not ashamed, but he’s angry about these allegations that are tarnishing his name and tarnishing his reputation,” Crawford told The Advertiser before Thursday’s arraignment.
“He’s still passionate about helping individuals and helping his patients,” Crawford said.
If convicted of the charges, Oesterling faces up to 20 years in prison. He awaits a hearing on the evidence at 1 p.m. on Jan. 17 in Tuscola County District Court.
Other big stories from 2016:
- Caro Community Schools’ significant progress on district-wide construction projects.
- A Michigan State Police investigation of Vassar Public Schools and Michigan Educational Partnership – a business that provided online education for students – is examining alleged issuance of fraudulent diplomas and student transcripts, decisions made without school board approval and dummy invoices used to pay a person’s private debts.
- Water use in Vassar has fallen about 80 percent, causing system-wide issues – and keeping officials busy calming frustrated residents while assessing the extent of infrastructure problems.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.