NEW BUFFALO — The Downtown New Buffalo streetscape project was officially opened on Thursday, June 14, with a “Paving the Way” celebration that included everything from a sculpture unveiling and a marching band-led parade to a lesson in the Potawatomi language and heartfelt speeches by some of the many who made the $4-plus million effort happen.
The Downtown Opening Celebration began at the corner of North Whittaker and Mechanic streets where Downtown Development Authority Chairman Robert Kemper gave a hearty welcome to the large crowd that gathered for the occasion to mark the end “of a long road” prior to the unveiling of the “Enduring Spirit” sculpture installed in recognition of donations to the city by the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and The Pokagon Fund.
“Just like all of you I’m proud to be part of this historical day in New Buffalo,” Kemper said, later noting that the revamped downtown is designed to be “a place for residents to gather, shop, dine.”
“We wanted the charming small-town feel that was missing. Safe was our main thing, a place where we were lucky to live and work while supporting the year-round business economy.”
Kemper said the discussion about the need to improve downtown infrastructure and accessibility began in 2003.
“It was made clear to me by City Engineer Bill Hupp that we had a 100-year-old failing system,” he said.
Kemper gave credit to Nancy Smith (chairperson of the Harbor Commission at the time) for being one of the people who pushed for the establishment of a Business Improvement District.
“That early group and each volunteer along the way remained focused on improving the downtown from 20 feet below ground to 20 feet above ground ... Thank you to so many people who believed in the dream,” he said. Kemper later thanked Bob Ford of Landscape Architects & Planners, Inc.; The Pokagon Fund for providing seed money in 2008; former City Council member and City Manager Rusty Geisler; city staff members who worked on the project in the early going including Water Department Superintendent Ken Anderson; “champion for change” Diane Pyshos; Department of Public Works Director Tony Ashbaugh; Paul Oselka of Pajay Construction; DDA board members and volunteers; family and friends; and many others.
Marcus Winchester, Language and Culture Director for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, introduced himself the assembled multitude in the Band’s language before quipping “What I just said was ‘Hello.’”
“I introduced myself in my language. I told you what my name is, the tribe I belong to — the Potawatomi People, the Odawa People — I told you that I’m Thunder Clan, and I told you that I’m from Coldwater, Michigan, and I now reside in Niles, Michigan.”
He gave credit to Language and Culture Department team members including Blaire Topash-Caldwell, Kyle Malott and Carla Collins for being “the master minds behind a lot of this.”
Winchester recounted the Band’s successful effort to remain in this area despite the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that mandated all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi had to be relocated west of the Mississippi. He said the Potawatomis sought to stay on their homeland by incorporating aspects of American culture into their villages.
“In 1833 we went to Chicago for the Treaty of Chicago that was supposed to sign away the last of our land ... and that’s when Leopold Pokagon stood up and said ‘You want to remove us from this land because you said we’re incapable of learning how to read and write, we’re incapable of living side by side with Americans, we’re incapable of farming, we’re incapable of all these things. But my village has proven you guys wrong. We’ve done all those things and we’re doing them very, very well.’”
Winchester said a provision was added to the Treaty of 1833 stating that Leopold Pokagon and his Band of Potawatomi would be able to remain in Michigan.
“That is the legacy of our community. Our ability to adapt and our ability to blend cultures together,” he said. “That is a legacy that we have continued today ... by partnering with New Buffalo.”
Sawyer sculptor Fritz Olsen, who created the “Enduring Spirit” work in limestone, said he learned quite about about the Pokagon Band while working on the sculpture (including the significance of each of the Four Winds and the principles reflected in the symbolism of the Potawatomi Medicine Wheel) and “really wanted to do a piece that reflected the heart of the people.”
Olsen said he selected the Four Winds as his inspiration for the design “to convey this resilient, enduring spirit that has allowed them to survive. I wanted it to have a sense of strength, humility and dignity.”
He then unveiled Enduring Spirit to calls of “It’s Beautiful!” from the crowd.
Winchester said the sculpture roughly translates to “Gakémadzëwen” in the Potatawtomi language, and led the audience in a quick Pokagon language pronunciation lesson, before singing an honor song in front of the sculpture.
After The Patriot Brass Ensemble led a block-long parade to the corner of North Whittaker and Merchant streets, a performance of the National Anthem by New Buffalo Area Schools student Ella Roch and series of speeches preceded the official ribbon-cutting conducted by Kemper and New Buffalo Mayor Lou O’Donnell IV.
O’Donnell led off by thanking “the City of New Buffalo, its citizens that have supported us through all of this — without you we could have never done this, without the bond, without The Pokagon Fund grants, this would have never come to where we are today” (The project’s funding included a $4 million bond issue approved by voters in November 2016 and a $1.6 million grant from The Pokagon Fund).
O’Donnell also gave credit to his fellow City Council members (Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Ennis, Robert Spirito, Mark Kroll and Mark Robertson) for doing wonders over the last couple of years; to city staff members for going “way beyond what they needed to do;” to everyone involved in the Downtown Development Authority for putting in “probably thousands of hours” into the project; residents involved in groups such as Forward New Buffalo; the engineers from Abonmarche for doing “a tremendous job.”
Joe Lindsay (co-owner of David’s Delicatessen & Coffee and a DDA board member) said he also lives on North Whittaker Street expressed excitement, relief and gratitude “that the street belongs to you the people again.”
“Thank you so much to everyone who supported this project, helped move this project forward. It is so wonderful for the community to invest in the downtown like they have,” he said.
As beautiful as the visible portions of the streetscape project are (the plantings, the lightposts), Lindsay said the real story is underground with the infrastructure.
“This two blocks of road has sustained life, business and community for almost 200 years. It’s seen wars, it’s seen peace, it’s seen recessions, it’s seen prosperity, and yet every day the folks who run businesses on Whittaker Street, who work on on Whittaker Street and live on Whittaker Street open their doors, get in their car and go about their day,” he said. “I think that’s amazing, and I think what we’ve done here today by replacing the pipes, replacing the sewers and replacing the storm drains has guaranteed that this street can survive for another 200 years.”
Lindsay said “one of the greatest privileges of my life was watching the Pajay crew demolish, remove and rebuild a nearly 200-year-old street. It was absolutely incredible what these guys were able to do ... They got to work before we did, stayed later than us, and did an absolutely monumental job.”
Lindsay said “the legend of this street” will live on not just with the adults of 2018, but with the kids who have experienced its transformation. He also gave credit to the engineers of Abonmarche, including “man on the street” Kevin Eyerly.
Kemper also said Tony McGee, Mike Morphey and Kathy Burczak (all of Abonmarche) also worked hard to make the project a success.
Also speaking were State Rep Dave Pagel (who said “Today we celebrate the great change”); State Sen. John Proos (who made a reference to the “I survived the Whittaker Street construction project” T-shirts worn by some in attendance before congratulating the community for working together on “the gateway to our Great Southwest.”); and Mike Ryan (district director for Congressman Fred Upton, who called New Buffalo “a gem of a city.”).
One of those wearing an “I survived the Whittaker Street construction project” shirt was Stacey MacGregor who works and lives on Whittaker Street. She told members of the Abonmarche team that “they’ve been the best.”
“They made this whole thing so easy,” she added.
One of the many highlights of the celebration was the debut of the “stone pebble benches” near The Villager at the North Whittaker-Merchant Street intersection (adjacent to the tent where post-parade speeches were made).
“They’re made out of a green marble (the quarry is overseas). We got them custom made from Stone Forest,” said project designer Kathy Burczak of Abonmarche.
Members of the Miss New Buffalo royal court distributed opening celebration programs adorned on the front with original art by Roger Harvey (posters of the downtown scene and other keepsakes also were given out during the event).
New Buffalo Area Schools student Ella Roch sang the National Anthem.
The Rev. Kevin Covert of the Diocese of Kalamazoo delivered an invocation.
Kemper said future generations will look back on the voters, volunteers and taxpayers of the community for their vision and accomplishments.
“I often get asked what is your favorite part of this project? I say the people. Because yesterday when I was out here deciding whether something could be moved one way or the other I saw a child 4 or 5 years old riding a bicycle down Whittaker Street with training wheels with their parents following them ... Those are the moments that make me smile and feel like this is work all the hours of work that went into it.”
He said the goal from the beginning was safe access for all.
“Goal achieved, We did it.”
A post on the city website as Phase II work was in full swing last winter stated: “The City of New Buffalo in partnership with the New Buffalo Downtown Development Authority is in the final phase of making much needed improvements to the community’s downtown area. The work underway on Whittaker Street reflects the final portion of our $4.3 million investment in the downtown which began in the Spring of 2017.”
Phase 1 of the project, completed before Memorial Day weekend 2017, replaced storm, sanitary and water infrastructure while making street-level improvements such as roadway reconstruction, new sidewalks and creating additional parking spaces on Barton Street between Merchant and Mechanic streets, Mechanic Street between Barton and Whittaker streets; and Mechanic Street between Whittaker and Townsend streets.
The paving of North Whittaker Street (and portions of Merchant and Mechanic streets) began on May 19 as the first two of three layers of asphalt (the base and leveling courses) were put in place by Rieth Riley crews. Over the next week or so Nature’s Way personnel planted trees as the landscaping portion of the project shifted into high gear. Seating and other amenities also were installed, with outdoor dining furniture expected to arrive soon.
The final layer of road surface (the surface course of HMA asphalt) was laid down after Memorial Day weekend.
Infrastructure work preceded the surface projects.
“We put a brand-new 12-inch water main in, we out a new sanitary sewer in here, everybody has brand-new service connections for sewer and water all the way to the face of the building,” Kevin Eyerly of Abonmarche said.
In addition to transforming North Whittaker Street from Mechanic to Buffalo (U.S. 12), Phase II of the project (which began last fall) also created a new-look section of Merchant Street between Thompson and Barton streets. Merchant Street is now one-way for a block in each direction away from Whittaker Street.
The following are “fun stats” (rough numbers) on the project provided by Abonmarche: Over 3.5 football fields of pavement and concrete were removed; More than 3 miles of conduit were installed; Over 3 miles of underground utility pipe was constructed (storm, sanitary, water); 4,600 tons of asphalt (weight equivalent of 2,300 cars) were used; and 5,500 square yards of concrete were placed.
The City of New Buffalo in partnership with the New Buffalo DDA is in the final phase of making improvements to the community’s downtown area. This is pat of a series of FAQs is published to answer questions about the Downtown Streetscape Project.
Q. How many parking spots are located in the Central Business District compared to before the streetscape improvements?
A. After the completion of the construction in the Central Business District, the city has a net gain of 40 parking spots.
Q. Will public restrooms be available and where will they be located?
A. On behalf of the City of New Buffalo, Abonmarche will apply for grant funding to build public restrooms adjacent to the transient marina. The final grant decision will be made at the end of 2018 with a proposed award date in the Spring of 2019.