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$1+ million coming to Berrien County for outdoor projects

BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. -- The city of Niles is one of four Berrien County communities receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the state after applying for a piece of a unique trust fund.

“As a small community, and one with some pretty staggering poverty, it’s almost unheard of for us to have those types of funds available as a community to do these types of projects,” said Niles Community Development Director Sanya Vitale.

But the blueprints are in for a new trailhead that will soon pop up along the St. Joseph River in Niles.

The city is receiving $220,000 from a Michigan trust fund for the project.

Couple that with another $250,000+ coming from Lakeland Hospital – which has land along the west side of the St. Joe River and has formed a partnership with the city to develop it as part of the Indiana-Michigan River Valley trail – and you have a renovation project worth nearly half a million dollars.

(*Correction* - After this story was initially posted, a representative from Lakeland Health reached out to clarify that several foundations, including Lakeland Health Foundations, contributed to the Niles Trailhead project. The representative said $215,000 of the $250,000 mentioned above came from those other foundations, while the remaining $35,000 of the $250,000 came from the hospital's Community Wellness Endowment.)

“They’ll have a food truck court down there, as well as a fishing pier,” Vitale said. “It will be ADA compliant, so our disabled neighbors will be able to go out and enjoy the trail as well, and fish off the pier.”

Vitale said the project – which will nearly double the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail in Niles – would not be possible were it not for funding from Michigan’s Natural Resources Trust Fund.

 But it’s not just Niles.

The fund is also dishing out cash to outdoor projects in Niles Township ($300,000), Watervliet ($296,000), and Eau Claire ($214,400).

It’s not taxpayer money, but revenue from the oil and gas industry in Michigan.

Michigan State Senator John Proos, 21st District, said communities put a lot of effort in applying for the money because it’s so unique.

“They put together very professional, formal presentations for the Natural Resources Trust Fund Board to seek the grant dollars that give them the chance to implement whatever their goal and objective may be,” Proos said.

He added that portions of the Paw Paw River have already been cleaned up thanks to the fund.

Newly added projects, like the one in Niles, are guaranteed the money once the board selects them.

“Those dollars can’t be used for other areas because the oil and gas revenues, by constitution in the state of Michigan, those revenues go into this trust fund for those purposes and those purposes only,” Proos said.

Vitale said the application for the project in Niles scored number one in the state.

She said she thinks it faired so well because of the unique partnership the city has with Lakeland Hospital, which is helping fund the part of the expansion that is not covered by the trust.

Vitale said construction is set to begin in 2018.

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