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Johnny's Roadhouse owners raise funds for new venue
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Johnny’s Roadhouse in Custer is undergoing some major changes, and once all is said and done, the venue is going to be something entirely different.

Work is now underway to tear down parts of the 1,700-square-foot bandstand and to create a new venue, according to Jeff Dietz, who co-owns the restaurant, bar and bandstand — separate from the adjacent Johnny’s Skate Center — with partner Jerri Huneycutt.

After sustaining heavy water damage during a storm in February 2019, and a series of challenges stemming from efforts to make repairs, Dietz is hoping to start fresh.

“We want to make an open-air, outdoor entertainment center, where you can come watch high-end bands five times a month,” Dietz told the Daily News.

Dietz is selling keepsakes from the Johnny’s Bandstand area to help raise funds for the venue’s future.

“We’re making commemorative pieces from the floor of the bandstand… they’re 2-foot by 2-foot, all framed, with some of Johnny’s 45s,” Dietz said. “We’ve been at it for days now, tearing out the floor just to keep up with orders.”

Some members of the community have been upset by the impending loss of the bandstand, Dietz said.

“They think we’re trying to take something away from Custer, but we’re trying to bring something here,” he said.

He noted, though, that there has also been support. Already, fundraising has brought in thousands of dollars, not only to help with the project, but to recoup some losses and settle some outstanding debts.

“We’ve already raised about $4,000 to $5,000 selling chairs and tables, because we’ve got to make money to do what we’re going to do. We’re selling everything.”

It’s been a turbulent couple of years for the couple, who purchased Johnny’s in fall 2018.

After a successful start, the storm, then insurance issues, then COVID-19 got in the way for Dietz and Huneycutt, who initially purchased the property with hopes of renovating the famous bandstand area and reopening it for concerts.

“We thought it was going to work… We wanted to keep the bandstand,” Dietz said. “It’s bittersweet. It’s not going to be Johnny’s anymore. We don’t know what it’s going to be (called), but let’s face it, Johnny’s hasn’t been the same sine the ’80s.”

Dietz said the future he envisions might not be possible without the help of Upper Hand Construction, an LLC that came to his aid when he thought there might be no way to forward, and Jeff Poulson, the general contractor overseeing the current work.

“I’m so blessed to have Upper Hand Construction in here helping me,” he said. “We’ve worked all night for the last four nights, tearing up walls, tearing up flooring.”

Another boon for Dietz happened just a few weeks ago, when he and Huneycutt were offered an opportunity to have the restaurant and bar area featured in a film.

“About a month ago, I got a call from someone saying they’re filming a movie and would like to use (the restaurant). The asked if we’d be interested. I said it couldn’t be bad for us, so we decided to sign the contract and let them film.”

As for what the future holds Dietz said there are still some details to be worked out.

“The design is still in (flux), but the big room area is going to be turned into a stage, it’ll be covered, and the rest is going to be gone,” he said. “It’ll be an outdoor event center where you can have wine and painting shows when you’re not having concerts. People can rent the place up.”

He said the hope is that there will be room enough for thousands of people to attend events.

“We’re hoping it will hold more than 2,000 people when we’re done,” Dietz said. “That’s our dream. That’s always been our dream — to have an amphitheater here.”

If everything goes right, there could be performances starting in summer 2021.

“I want to be able to bring something here, and not lose our investment,” he said.

Dietz said the last few years have been challenging, and he wants people to understand that he cares about preserving the legacy of the venue.

“Me and Jerri, we’re good people. We love Johnny’s. We’re givers and we’ll continue to be givers,” he said. “We need people to understand, we’ve spent everything we have — we spent our whole retirement — on this place, and I want to be able to bring something here, and not lose our investment.”

To purchase photos, records, pieces of the bandstand floor, tables, chairs or other memorabilia items, contact Dietz at (704) 960-0017, or visit the Johnny’s Roadhouse Facebook page.

Jeff Kiessel | daily news

Drivers and pedestrians make their way through the maze of downtown Ludington road construction on Thursday.

Potential Muskegon casino moving one step closer
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MANISTEE — The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians announced Thursday that its proposed casino project in Muskegon County’s Fruitport Township is taking one step closer to reality.

In a press release, the tribe announced the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) will publish a Notice Availability of a Final Environmental Impact Statement for the tribe’s fee-to-trust and casino project a former racetrack in Fruitport Township near the intersection of I-96 and U.S. 31.

“This is an incredible step forward in our process to build the Muskegon County casino project,” stated Larry Romanelli, ogema of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, in the press release. “This project is about job creation for our community, and I want to thank everyone – our steadfast community, our federal and state leaders, labor unions and tribal members for their support for this project.”

The tribe states that approximately 3,000 jobs will be created from the project, of which 1,500 will be full-time jobs at the casino and hotel with another 1,500 jobs through construction and ancillary jobs. The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians is building this casino with internal financial resources and no taxpayer dollars but is expected to generate economic development of $15 million in tax revenue for the State of Michigan and millions more for local governments, according to the release.

According to the release, the BIA considered the Little River Band’s proposed casino project and other economic development alternatives. The BIA concluded that the casino proposal was the preferred alternative of the federal government. A public comment period will take place, and once that period concludes, the federal government will issue a decision on the application. If approved, the process moves to the state for a decision of concurrence from the governor and action by the state legislature.

The tribe has historical ties to traditional land in the Muskegon region with Muskegon County being home to the Little River Band’s largest population base. Muskegon County is also one of the Little River Band’s service areas and the tribe maintains governmental offices in Muskegon to serve its large number of local members.

“The tribe plans to develop a casino on our traditional land in Muskegon County so we can serve our largest population of tribal citizens in our service area,” said Tribal Council Speaker Ron Pete. “A casino in Muskegon County will enable the tribe to provide jobs, housing, health care, education and other services to our elders and youth. It will also provide a very positive economic impact for the Muskegon community.”

The Little River Band has been working on this project for more than 10 years. The tribe filed an application in February 2015 requesting the BIA place the 60 acres of land in trust for a $180 million casino and economic development project. The BIA published a draft environmental impact statement in November 2018 followed by a public hearing and comment period.

The development calls for a casino with 69,000 square feet of gaming floor space to include 1,700 slot machines and 35 table games. A 220-room hotel is also part of the project along with event and meeting room spaces as well as dining and entertainment options.

The BIA reviewed potential environmental impacts of the casino project, and according to the release, it included land use, geology and soils, water resources, agricultural resources, biological resources, cultural resources, traffic, air quality, noise, public health/environmental hazards, hazardous material and waste, public services and socio-economics.

A public comment period after the BIA publishes the final environmental impact statement will be announced by the federal government.

For more information, go to www.littlerivereis.com

Struggling hospitality industry faces new challenge as winter looms

LANSING — The state’s hospitality industry adjusted to COVID-19 with mixed results but now there’s a new challenge: winter.

Patio season is coming to a close and restaurants are only half full, as a result of a recent Michigan Department of Health and Human Services order calling for restaurant capacity to remain at 50%.

“If people can’t be outdoors, we think we’ll lose 5,000 restaurants, which is roughly a third of the restaurants in the state,” said John McNamara, the vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The association is working with the Legislature and the governor’s office to allow restaurants to enclose and heat their patios for the winter. It’s also hoping that banquet centers will be treated like restaurants to allow more servers than allowed under coronavirus restrictions.

“There’s lots of work to be done,” McNamara said. “Restaurants were a vanguard of public safety before this. A lot of people have changed their business models overnight in order to allow guests to still come in and enjoy a meal safely.”

Still, he said, more than a thousand restaurants “have closed their doors for good.”

“My focus the past six months has really been on giving our members tools to survive and thrive during this pandemic,” he said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established executive orders to protect residents and slow the spread, but those orders have since been rescinded under a court order. The Department of Health and Human Services order continued her restrictions on restaurant capacity.

The pandemic hit the hospitality industry hard. In July 2019, Michigan had nearly 435,000 hospitality workers. Last July, that number hardly passed 270,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

It was even worse in April when it reported only 179,700 workers — the lowest monthly number in 10 years.

Typically, the monthly number of Michigan employees in the sector that provides food, beverage, travel and tourism hovers around 400,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The highest within the past 10 years was 436,700 in March of 2019, less than a year before the virus struck.

“We called it our carryout season,” said Marty Hutnick, the owner of the Four Corners Diner in the small southeast Michigan village of Romeo. “There were only three to four of us working, so it was hard. But that’s what helped keep our doors open.”

Hutnick credits the “phenomenal community” for helping keep the establishment afloat. When they weren’t buying carryout, many customers purchased gift certificates. A few customers even went as far as helping the restaurant pay the bills for rent and electricity.

“The stress that it caused on me personally was very hard,” Hutnick said. “I don’t think people realize what goes on behind the scenes. I wanted to give up and turn the lock.” Compared to other business owners, Hutnick considers herself lucky to have survived carryout season.

“Some industries have not been hit as hard as others,” said Otie McKinley, the media and communications manager of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and Pure Michigan. “When you look at the tourism industry and small businesses, they have been catastrophically impacted.”

The agency launched 19 coronavirus response programs to assist businesses during the pandemic. Working closely with local partners and agencies, the corporation used funding provided by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that was implemented at the end of March. About $100 million went toward supporting communities across the state through the Michigan Small Business Restart Grant program, McKinley said.

“As we work to rebuild our economy, we want to do so in a way that creates a more equitable and resilient economy than what we had going into COVID-19,” he said.

The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association worked with lawmakers to ease the virus’ impact on the hospitality industry. It supported a bill passed in July that let restaurants sell liquor to-go with limited customer contact.

The legislation also permits cities to establish social districts for people to dine and drink from open containers outside. East Lansing blocked off a portion of Albert Street, home to many restaurants, and set up picnic tables for sitting and dining or drinking.

“Closing Albert and having the social zone so close to us was an additional revenue stream that we’ve never had before,” said Bryan Ponke, the general manager at HopCat’s East Lansing location. “Even though our restaurant occupancy was limited and our sales were negatively impacted by COVID-19, we saw an outstanding spike in takeout sales.”

HopCat used the garage doors on the side of its building as its takeout window. Guests could order and pick up their drinks and food from the safety of the sidewalk. According to Ponke, the social district definitely helped business.

Number of confirmed cases in area counties

Number of confirmed cases in area counties

Mason County: 180 (118 recovered; 1 death)

Oceana County: 551 (482 recovered; 6 deaths)

Manistee County: 111 (63 recovered; 3 deaths)

Lake County: 52 (31 recovered)

Wexford County: 144 (101 recovered; 4 deaths)

Newaygo County: 536 (313 recovered; 3 deaths)

— as of 4 p.m. Thursday according to District Health Department No. 10,


Library to offer autumn-themed activity bags today
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Library to offer autumn-themed activity bags today

The Mason County District Library will distribute Fun Family Friday activity packets every Friday at locations in Ludington and Scottville. The packets will be outside on the fence posts in Ludington’s backyard and on the clothesline in Scottville 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

In rainy weather, look for the packets under cover somewhere near the main door.

The Fun Family Friday activity packs will include supplies and instructions for an activity or craft, with supporting web links and book suggestions when possible. This week, the activity packs include pumpkin crafts, activity sheets, a fall-themed scavenger hunt and a mask to create. These packets are intended to be a no stress, relaxing and fun family bonding activity.

Currently the Mason County District Library is open for curbside delivery of library materials such as books and DVDs, and services such as printing, faxing and copying from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays and until 6 p.m. on Wednesdays at both locations.

The Mason County District Library is open for limited in-person services such as computer use from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays. Masks are required for entry. If you are unable to wear a mask, library staff will help you outside the building. Just call, email or text us and we will be there for you.

Virtual preschool programs are posted Monday through Thursday at 10 a.m. on the Mason County District Library Facebook page and at www.mcdlibrary.org.

Water supply safe from Lake Michigan's high waters

Ludington City Manager Mitch Foster might be as thankful as anyone that the record-high waters of Lake Michigan are starting to recede.

Foster told Stateline.org in a story published in the Daily News earlier this month explained some of the issues the city faced with the lake’s water levels. That included saying the water treatment plant on Lakeshore Drive lost a 100-foot buffer of beachfront down to about 8 feet.

“When I got here, we still had significant beach and dune on the water side,” Foster said Thursday. “All of a sudden, from the end of 2019 going through recently, (there was the erosion of the beach)… I was concerned. We didn’t know what was under there.”

What was under there was rip-rap and a bit more that was installed in the mid-1980s — roughly the same time the previous record-high waters impacted the shores of Lake Michigan — to help protect the low pump station.

“That has held expertly over the entire summer,” Foster said. “We have not lost any additional feet or inches. And it goes down 40 feet into the earth.”

But, it’s not a perfect scenario for the city, either. Foster said the water treatment lagoon does not enjoy the same protection as the low pump station nearby.

“It’s another 20-25 feet farther inland,” Foster said. “It is not as well protected with rip-rap. That would be the biggest issue.”

The city is looking at getting cost estimates from Hardman Construction for the construction of a seawall. The city also is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in seeking a study first on what can be and should be done. It could lead to some grant dollars from the federal government to protect the reservoir.

The water and drinking supply, though, does not appear to be threatened, Foster said.