As the new Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 emerged during 2021, the deadly virus prevented people throughout the world from returning to a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy.

Closer to home in the South Haven area, the first few months of 2021 began with a glimmer of hope that new COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson would control the spread of the virus.

Restaurants re-opened their doors, people began traveling back and forth to their jobs after being told to work from home, and students returned to their classrooms for in-person learning.

Yet, by mid-year, the fallout from the pandemic – supply shortages, worker shortages, and mistrust of the new vaccines, kept worldwide struggles to control COVID-19 at the forefront.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, people throughout the world and in South Haven area, forced themselves to adjust while trying to return to life prior to COVID-19.

Bronson Healthcare opened the doors of its new $22 million hospital in South Haven, voters approved South Haven Public Schools’ $35 million bond issue to improve school and athletic facilities, Senior Services of Van Buren County’s new $3.2 million senior center began to take shape, the Michigan Maritime Museum broke ground for a new $3.6 million museum and the City of South Haven inked a deal with Chicago-based Habitat Company to redevelop the former Overton Factory site into an affordable housing complex containing a mix of apartments and town houses.

As we turn the calendar to 2022 the pandemic still stands in the forefront of our lives, but there is hope that a new year will bring a brighter future and a new norm we can forge together.

The top 10 stories of 2021 in the South Haven area follow, some highlighting hope, others sorrow:

A pandemic that’s not going away – yet

The new year held high hopes for the halt of COVID-19. In January, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services lifted the ban on indoor dining for restaurants and bars, and older adults were given the first opportunity to receive vaccinations to curb the spread of the virus. However, by February, Van Buren County recorded its first Delta variant case. A month later, county health officials observed COVID-19 cases were beginning to spike, prompting the cancellation of upcoming summer events, such as the Fourth of July parade and fireworks display, along with Harborfest.

Although more adults became eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines in the spring of 2021, hesitancy to do so, due in part to mixed reports about the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing coronavirus, stalled progress on halting the virus. Yet, by the start of summer, with more shots in arms across the country, and a slow down in new COVID-19 cases, in-person graduation ceremonies resumed, late summer events, such as the National Blueberry Festival took place, and school districts made plans to have students return to the classroom in the fall.

That changed, however, by late fall as a surge in new COVID-19 cases once again put the South Haven area and the rest of the world on edge, especially with the emergence of the new highly transmissible Omicron variant.

By December, hospitals throughout the country, as well as Southwest Michigan, reported a shortage of beds and staff to deal with the influx of COVID-19 patients – the majority of whom were unvaccinated. Michigan was among the states with the highest outbreak of new COVID cases and deaths. By mid-December, Bronson South Haven reported that it had reached capacity limits for available patient beds. The state health department issued a recommendation that people resume wearing face masks, while also urging adults and youth, ages 5-18, to receive their shots.

And yet, as 2021 drew to a close, hesitancy on becoming vaccinated from COVID-19 continued to linger. By mid-November, 70 percent of Michigan residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine, however, only 56 percent of the state’s inhabitants were fully vaccinated. By the end of December, the state health department reported a total of 1.68 million cases of coronavirus since the pandemic began, with a total of 28,644 deaths. A breakdown of county statistics showed 18,088 cases and 239 deaths in Allegan County and 11,795 cases and 189 deaths in Van Buren.

Rioters storm nation’s capitol following presidential election

South Haven area residents, as well as people throughout the rest of America, were stunned on Jan. 6 to learn news that a group of rioters had stormed the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. in an attempt to halt lawmakers from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Lawmakers, such as Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, were outraged over the attempt to overthrow the certification of the presidential election, in which voters chose Democrat challenger Joe Biden over President Donald Trump’s bid for a second term.

The day started with a “Save America Rally,” in which Trump spoke to supporters, who along with him, claimed the election had been “stolen” from the president. Two hours afterwards, larger groups of protestors stormed the Capitol building, forcing lawmakers to disburse and temporarily halting the Senate’s certification process until late in the evening when order had been restored by police and National Guard units, allowing lawmakers to convene once again.

“It’s unbelievable to think that this could ever happen here,” Upton said in an interview with the Herald-Palladium. “This is going to be part of Trump’s legacy. I watched his speech on TV (prior to the rioting) when he spoke to the crowd. He inspired them to go challenge the process, and my God they did. And the president calling these folks patriots? I’m sorry, that’s really the wrong term. They’re thugs.”

The riot and siege on the Capitol resulted in five deaths and many injured people, including 138 police officers. Approximately 615 people were charged with federal crimes, while 30 known members of anti-government groups were charged with conspiracy. The U.S. House of Representatives formed a “Select Committee” to investigate what led up to the riot, including President Trump’s possible involvement in it. As of the end of the year, the investigation is still continuing.

Plans proceed to redevelop Overton site

Promising to fulfill a 2021 goal of creating affordable housing in the city limits, South Haven city officials inked a deal with a developer to buy six acres of land on the city’s southside that once housed the former Overton factory.

City council members, in October, voted unanimously to approve the purchase agreement with Chicago-based Habitat Company for $100,000.

The developer has proposed to build a 144-unit housing complex in three stages over a 10-year period.

Jeff Head, vice-president for development at Habitat Company, told Planning Commission members in December he hopes work can begin on development of the mixed-income housing community in 2022. The first phase of the project, however, will be contingent on Habitat receiving Low-Income Housing Tax Credit funding from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MISHDA).

The development will be called SoHAVEN, according to preliminary plans submitted to the Planning Commission. The first phase will include a 58-unit apartment complex with 40 one-bedroom units, 11 two-bedroom units and 7 three-bedroom dwellings. The town home phase will consist of 26 for-sale two-bedroom units, while the third phase will include two apartment buildings with 48 one-bedroom units, 8 two-bedroom units and 4 three-bedroom units.

The complex, which would front Elkenburg Street and Indiana Avenue near the Van Buren recreational trail, will include 178 parking spaces, two play areas, a community garden and picnic area with a patio and sensory garden.

A banner year for the housing market

Following 2020’s banner year for home sales, the Southwest Michigan housing market continued to do well in 2021. South Haven’s housing market also performed well.

In 2020, the number of houses and condos sold and selling prices in the South Haven market surpassed all previous years’ results going back to 2014 with one exception – in 2016, condo sales totaled 55 compared to 52 in 2020, according to the Southwestern Michigan Association of Realtors.

The local market continued to roar in 2021, although at a slower pace.

In November, according to the latest statistics from the Association of Realtors, single-family home sales in South Haven rose 12 percent, while condo sales increased 25 percent, compared to the same time period in 2020. The average selling price for single-family homes also went up in November by 11 percent to $588,726 compared to $528,475 in November of 2020. Condo sale prices also went up by 11 percent.

However, the median selling price of single-family homes dipped in November by 12 percent to $399,900 from $452,500 during the same time period in 2020. The median price, which some realtors consider a more accurate measurement of housing market trends, is the price at which 50 percent of the homes sold are above the average selling price and 50 percent below.

Overall, for the first 11 months of 2021, Southwestern Michigan’s housing market fared quite well. By the end of November, 3,593 homes had been sold, setting a new sales record in the year-over-year sales records since 2006. Average sales prices also set a new record. For the first 11 months of 2021, the average selling price for homes climbed 6 percent over the same period in 2020.

Housing inventory continued to decline in the region. The number of available homes for sale fell 25 percent from a year ago – 702 vs. 930 – in the area served by the Southwestern Michigan Association of Realtors (Allegan, Berrien, Cass and the western two-thirds portion of Van Buren County). For comparison, in November 2010, there were 3,160 homes for sale.

South Haven school district voters say yes to upgrades

Voters in the South Haven Public School District voted by a nearly two-to-one margin in May, to pass a $35 million bond issue to make extensive improvements to buildings and athletic facilities.

‘The infrastructure components of the bond will enable us to keep our buildings in great shape,” said Board of Education President Laura Bos following the election. “The money will also cover programming and athletic improvements, as well as health and safety (of staff and students).”

Upgrades to athletic facilities will begin this spring and will include additional fencing for softball and baseball fields; replacement of the tennis courts and new lighting; reconstructing the track at Ratcliffe Field, drainage improvements at the Aylworth property soccer fields; barrier-free toilet buildings for the baseball and softball fields and tennis courts at the high school; bleacher replacement at Ratcliffe Field; and upgrades to Arkins Fieldhouse.

Upgrades to school buildings will follow at Baseline Middle School, South Haven High School, and Lincoln, Maple Grove and North Shore elementary schools; as well as relocation of the administrative offices and bus garage to the Armory building on Aylworth Avenue. The Armory building will be renovated in the process, while the district will sell the Green Street property which currently houses the administrative office and bus garage.

New water safety measures proposed for city beaches, piers

People who swim in Lake Michigan along South Haven beaches during hazardous weather conditions could soon be fined for doing so.

City council members introduced an ordinance in December that prohibits people from swimming in Lake Michigan and walking along the North and South Pier when they are closed due to inclement weather or other hazardous water conditions. Doing so will constitute a civil infraction and result in a fine up to $1,000.

The proposed ordinance comes on the heels of a Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ decision earlier this year to fine people up to $500 for entering into Lake Michigan at state parks during red flag conditions.

The only exception would be for board sport recreational enthusiasts, such as kite boarders, who go into Lake Michigan to surf when waves are high.

The city’s proposed ordinance also involves installation of gates on the South and North piers that would be closed to foot traffic during hazardous weather conditions. The gates would be similar to ones installed this past year at Holland State Park to prevent people from accessing the piers.

City council members have examined ways to improve water and pier safety at city beaches following record high water levels in 2020, which led to three drownings. Shortly afterward, the city set up a beach safety committee to find ways to reduce drowning or near-drowning incidents in waters near North and South beaches and piers.

Maritime Museum, Senior Services embark on building projects

Michigan Maritime Museum and Senior Services of Van Buren County officials rolled up their sleeves in 2021 to begin work on two expansive building projects.

In September, the museum held a ceremony to break ground on its new $3.6 million, two-story Heritage Center that will replace the small, cramped one-story structure that had housed the museum’s exhibits and programs for the past several decades. Officials hope to open the new museum this summer.

The 17,000-square-foot Heritage Center is part of the museum’s $8 million capital improvement campaign to expand its campus at 260 Dyckman Ave. that overlooks the city’s harbor and drawbridge.

Since launching the fundraising campaign two years ago, the museum has raised more than $7 million, which includes grants from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources trust fund, Entergy Foundation and South Haven Area Community Foundation.

The capital improvement project’s first phase began with the museum board’s purchase of the Jensen fishery buildings at the entrance to the harbor, next to the museum’s campus and the Dyckman Avenue drawbridge.

Early in 2021, contractors removed the old Jensen marina clubhouse and are in the process of restoring one of the fishery buildings into an indoor facility to showcase South Haven’s role in commercial fishing during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The other two-story building on the Jensen property will be used to house the museum’s extensive small craft exhibit. Due to record high water levels along the Black River channel last year, $275,000 worth of work also was undertaken to shore up the grade on the Jensen property to avoid future flooding.

The second phase of the expansion project entails construction of a new two-story building on the Jensen site for use by the museum’s excursion captains and for small conferences; replacement of the Jensen parking lot with grass for outdoor events and workshops; construction of two new docks for longer vessels and tall ships that visit the museum; construction of an outdoor patio that will include a large, three-season tent for outdoor events; and improving the museum grounds by making them more accessible for walking to the museum’s other boat buildings.

Across town, another expansion project is taking place with Senior Services of Van Buren County’s extensive renovation of the former Village Market store into a large activity center for older adults.

The renovated building, with its new coat of exterior paint, new outdoor lighting, and completely revamped interior, is set to open to the public sometime in February.

The $3.2 million capital improvement project showcases a building whose interior bears no resemblance to that of a grocery store.

When people walk into the 47,000-square-foot building on M-140 Highway just south of Aylworth Avenue, they will see a senior center complete with a commercial kitchen, lunch counter, large dining area, indoor walking track, computer room, activity rooms, pickleball courts, a multi-purpose theater/auditorium and offices. The building will also be home to several businesses that complement the needs of older adults – Moore Pharmacy and a salon and day spa.

The new senior activity center has been designed to meet the needs of programs offered at the current Senior Center on 76th Avenue and to be marketed for use by community groups for large or small gatherings, according to Diane Rigozzi, executive director of Senior Services of Van Buren County.

New Bronson South Haven Hospital opensAfter nearly two years of construction, the new Bronson South Haven Hospital opened to the public in May.

“This new facility is a $22 million investment in advancing the health and well-being of patients and families in South Haven and the surrounding region,” Bronson Healthcare President and CEO Bill Manns said at the hospital’s official opening on May 27. “The inpatient and outpatient care provided here will be second to none and will attract new providers and staff to this community for generations to come.”

The two-story, 52,000 square foot, state-of-the-art facility is located directly east of the former hospital and is accessible from both Blue Star Highway and Bailey Avenue. The hospital contains an emergency department with 14 beds, 8 additional in-patient beds; café; gift shop; large registration area and lobby; radiology department that conducts in-patient and out-patient MRI, CT, nuclear medicine, X-ray, fluoroscopy, ultrasound, mammography, bone density imaging, pulmonary function testing and stress testing; laboratory department, pharmacy and offices on the second floor for Bronson South Haven Internal Medicine, Bronson South Haven Family Medicine, Bronson South Haven Pediatrics, Bronson Women’s Services and Bronson Obstetrics, Gynecology & Midwifery Specialists.

In the fall of 2021, Bronson finished construction of a new 4,500-square-foot medical facility to house Bronson General Surgery Specialists and Bronson Wound Center & Hyperbaric Medicine. The facility is located at 940 Blue Star Memorial Hwy., next to Bronson South Haven Hospital.

Bronson plans to tear down the former South Haven Hospital buildings that front S. Bailey Avenue. A date has not yet been set for demolition.

Shooting on South Pier shocks community

The tragic event that unfolded at South Beach on the afternoon of Aug. 20, will be etched in the minds of those who witnessed it.

On that day, shortly after 2 p.m., a 19-year-old man from Bangor, armed with two handguns, walked out on South Pier, and shot Charles and Barbara Skuza of Kalamazoo before turning one of the guns on himself. The shooter, Aidan Ingalls, along with Charles Skuza, died, while Barbara Skuza suffered very serious injuries, which she later recovered from.

When the shooting began, beach video cameras captured the image of people running from the beach toward their vehicles. Some hid behind the protective walls of temporary erosion revetment walls.

Law enforcement personnel from South Haven Police Department and other agencies quickly responded and secured the scene.

Ingalls had a prior history of expressing intent to harm people. In 2018, he was sentenced to a juvenile residential treatment facility in Gaylord after his mother and her boyfriend found guns and ammunition in his bedroom. A journal he had written also detailed Ingalls’ plans to shoot students and bomb Paw Paw High School, where he had been recently enrolled.

Ingalls remained at the treatment facility in Gaylord for approximately year and while there obtained his GED, before being released to the custody of grandparents. He enrolled part-time at Lake Michigan College and worked part-time at a restaurant in South Haven. But when he was released from probation on July 20 of 2021, a month later he went to the South Pier and randomly shot a couple before committing suicide, leaving many to wonder why.

South Haven Medal of Honor recipient dies

Korean War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Duane Dewey hasn’t lived in South Haven since the early 1970s, but local family members, area military veterans and other community residents were saddened to hear of his death, Oct. 11, in St. Augustine, Fla., where he resided.

Dewey received his Medal of Honor in 1953 from President Dwight Eisenhower after nearly losing his life in 1952 while serving in the Korean War. During the battle he used his body to smother an explosion from a live grenade to save fellow Marines during the Korean War. Eisenhower referred to Dewey as having a “body of steel” when awarding him the medal.

Dewey first came to the South Haven area at the age of 17. Two years later, after marrying his wife, Bertha (Bierhalter), he enlisted in the Marines in 1951. After recuperating from his life-threatening injuries from the war he returned to South Haven where he and Bertha raised two children. Even though the couple moved from South Haven in 1973, Duane Dewey made a point of returning to the area for special ceremonies hosted by the American Legion Post 49 and to visit with family and friends.

A black granite monument, next to the front entrance of South Haven City Hall, pays tribute to Dewey’s courageous act of valor during the Korean War.