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Vicksburg Rising

Vicksburg Village Manager Jim Mallery enjoys the communal firepit in the town’s renovated Oswalt Park.
This ever-evolving village is attracting business, residents and more

How does a municipality recover from demoralizing financial disaster?

The village of Vicksburg knows. In fact, Vicksburg has learned not only to recover and survive but to thrive. And the story of that process involves positive results that are plainly evident as well as results that are unseen but essential.

One example of the visible and invisible changes is infrastructure, specifically the streets, sidewalks and sewers of downtown Vicksburg.

Thanks to a major project called The Big Dig, completed in 2021, downtown streets are repaved but narrower, providing a valuable “traffic calming” effect. The new sidewalks are wide, attractive and pedestrian-friendly, which is good for retail commerce, while the sanitary sewers and storm drains are state-of-the-art and environmentally friendly, a plus for all.

All these improvements were necessary, but only the above-ground enhancements are readily visible. Village Manager Jim Mallery summarizes the situation this way: “Our sewer system was 80 years old. It had weaknesses that nobody could see. If those (potential failings) were potholes, people would be appalled.”

Appalled is exactly what Mallery felt when, on his first day on the job as village man-ager, in August 2016, he became aware of previous management practices, confirmed by independent financial auditors, that had put the village government in the throes of fiscal collapse.

“I was contacted by a vice president of a bank the village did business with who said they were going to suspend our accounts. That was three hours into my full-time employment for the village,” Mallery recalls.

Determined to find out what was going on and take steps to correct the situation, Mallery and the Village Council started with “transparent communications” with their constituents, he says, outlining the problems and potential solutions.

Now, a mere six years later, the benefits of those efforts glow, glimmer and glisten in the spotlight of public awareness within the village, as well as among nearby communities, and at the state level, where fiscal bureaucrats pay close attention to the financial condition of municipalities throughout Michigan.

John Gisler, Kalamazoo County commissioner for District 8, which includes most of Vicksburg, beautifully summarizes the village’s circumstances — then and now: “Vicksburg was close to getting a (state-appointed) emergency manager, and now it’s the (Michigan Department of) Treasury’s poster child of how to run a small municipality.”

What makes Vicksburg so highly esteemed among its neighbors as well as in Lansing?

It’s a long list: increasing property values; an influx of new residents; several new downtown businesses; restoration and preservation of historic buildings; voluntary cooperation and collaboration within the business community; the downtown’s new Oswalt Park, featuring a large outdoor gas firepit that serves as a public gathering place; a successful international arts and music residency program; an indoor farmers market; a rich schedule of festivals and events; a local brewery; a plethora of quality restaurants and taverns; those wider sidewalks coupled with inviting roll-up doors on some music-oriented eateries; ample free parking; a beloved History Village and Museum (formerly a train depot) where people read, party and get married; and super-friendly merchants, business owners and service personnel.

But at the foundation of these highly visible signs of thriving is a less-evident but critical component: the return to municipal management based on fiscal responsibility and respect for human values. The result has been another benefit known to all who own property in Vicksburg: the reduction of property taxes by one-half mill in June 2019, brought about by a voluntary decision of the Village Council.

From police officer to city manager

Mallery says he was raised in a family that valued a dollar and treated everyone as equal, regardless of their background or where they live. He and his wife, Stephanie, have resided in Vicksburg since 1997. Their children attended and graduated from Vicksburg schools.

Stephanie was employed by Vicksburg Community Schools from 1997 to 2022 as a fifth-grade teacher, district coordinator, district instructional coach and coordinator of English Language Arts. Jim worked more than 25 years as a police officer in the Kalamazoo Public Safety Department, reaching the rank of captain and serving for a time as interim chief.

“Vicksburg is our hometown,” says Mallery.

In about 2013 he became aware, he says, of “rumblings and rumors” about how the village was being run. When others in Vicksburg learned of his retirement from KDPS in 2016, members of the Village Council asked, would you “help us out?” Jim agreed, acknowledging now that he didn’t know then “the full depth and breadth of what I was walking into.”

Former Village Manager Matt Crawford resigned in 2013 and plead guilty to embezzlement in 2014. Ken Schippers was brought in to be the village manager in 2014, but two years later the town still had a $3.5 million debt and a $450,000 deficit and was on the brink of having an emergency manger appointed by the state. Schippers hired Mallery as the village’s assistant manager in January 2016, and Mallery became village manager when Schippers retired in August of that same year.

The threat of being under the control of an emergency manager, especially in light of emergency manager fiascoes in Detroit, Flint and Benton Harbor, was a huge wake-up call that was amplified by citizen distrust of the government.

“We knew we had to do everything we could to reestablish that trust. Not only be a steward of the citizens’ money but be completely transparent,” says Mallery.

Boosting transparency

The first step was implementation of a new website for the village, livestreaming of all governmental meetings, and electronic archiving of those meetings on YouTube that would be accessible through a link on the village website so people could view them later.

Vicksburg resident Alex Lee, who had recently retired from his 30-year career as communications director for Kalamazoo Public Schools and taken a new role as director of community engagement for the village, insisted on installation of high-quality audio/video recording and playback equipment that would make every word and image easily discernible.

All information related to village finances, dating to 2015–16, is now visible at Vicksburgmi.org under the “Financial Transparency” link. There are also easy-to-see links to the community calendar, village forms and ordinances, departments and commissions, news and bulletins, and other valuable data.

“We’re doing everything we can to communicate the best we can to our citizens,” says Mallery. “We want people to know that the money we spend isn’t just expenditures but investments, and there’s a return on those investments.”

Spending cash only

When it comes to spending, Mallery adds, “We are really committed to spending cash only,” a practice of years gone by that is often missing today in the era of easy credit, municipal bonds and operating deficits. “We will not go into debt unless it’s for critical infrastructure,” he vows. He cites as “a prime example” a new Department of Public Works building, constructed in 2021–22.

“The need (for a new building) was there on Day One, but with no cash on hand, we classified it as a wish,” he says. In response to that wish, the village administrators and leaders created a capital improvement plan. “We put money in each of our buckets,” says Mallery. “Five years later, we had the cash on hand to completely pay for a brand new 6,000-square-foot building, so all our equipment is stored inside, which will prolong the life of the equipment.”

A second example — a plan to build a new Village Hall for $2.45 million without taking on debt — was approved by the Vicksburg Village Council in March of this year. The current Village Hall, built in the 1940s, lacks a meeting space, forcing the council to rent another space to hold meetings.

These buildings are two more examples of improvements seen and unseen. Yes, people can see the new public works building. But do people see the equipment parked inside? Most probably don’t. Do they see the savings generated by prolonged equipment life? Maybe they will in future tax bills. As for the new Village Hall, it will house police offices, as the current facility does now, but be designed so that those who do business with the public safety department will have more privacy — an amenity many probably won’t realize but that is critically important.

A place ‘to enjoy each other’

But back to the happenings and improvements that residents and visitors can readily see.

Among the visible changes are those at Oswalt Park, located at the downtown intersection of East Prairie and South Main streets. The cost of improvements to the park, completed in 2022, was $300,000, but “not one single tax dollar was used,” Mallery says. Rather, the project was paid for through grants and fundraising. This formerly underused park is now a cornerstone gathering place, with a new firepit, benches, charging stations and additional sidewalks.

An example of one of the town’s highly visible events is the annual Christmas in the Village, a holiday tradition since 2016. in 2022, this Saturday-night festival featured craft shows at a downtown church, horse-drawn wagon rides, a children’s elf workshop and children’s entertainment throughout downtown, roaming teenage carolers, a magic show, Christmas Card Lane, the winter farmers’ market with holiday items for sale, taverns and restaurants that served “Santa Feast Specials,” and a parade that included the Vicksburg High School marching band, municipal and law enforcement vehicles and others.

Santa Claus was there, of course, along with an estimated 7,500 people — residents and visitors — who packed those wide downtown sidewalks, gathered around the new firepit in Oswalt Park and spent tourist dollars.

These are not the sights of a dying town. Far from it. These are manifestations of prosperity and amplifications of the village dream — indeed, the epitome of the Village Council’s dynamic goal: “To be a place where visitors are welcome and neighbors become friends.”

“Vicksburg was close to getting a (state-appointed) emergency manager, and now it’s the (Michigan Department of)Treasury’s poster child of how to run a small municipality.”

— John Gisler, District 8 KalamazooCounty commissioner

“We want Vicksburg to be a spot where people are comfortable to hang out in a safe environment and enjoy each other,” says Mallery. “If we get 1 percent of the population of Kalamazoo County to come to Vicksburg, that’s 2,500 people. I’m quite confident that, with what we’re offering here, they’ll return and, hopefully, bring 10 of their friends.”

A philosophy of service

The benefits of living in Vicksburg are also evident in what Mallery calls “our service-oriented philosophy.”

He cites, as an example, village police officers who “every morning are in front of the elementary schools, middle school and high school just saying hi to kids. Our officers also go into the elementaries, reading to kids, showing the patrol car to them, interacting in a non-traditional manner.”

A similar reading program began with a library initiative in 2019 in which municipal employees read to about 50 youngsters at the Historic Village. That program has grown. Now more than 100 youths are involved and readers include the village staff, council members, police officers, school administrators and library personnel.

“If a resident goes on vacation, whether for the winter or a week, they can give us a call, and we’ll check on their house if they want us to,” says Mallery.

His favorite story of community service involves an elderly resident who got a wooden spoon stuck in a blender. She called the village administrators, and members of the Public Works Department went into the person’s house, unstuck the spoon and repaired the blender.

These efforts, Mallery says, “have an impact on our citizens that we are delivering service in a positive manner. We’re moving from (the mindset) of people simply waving as they walk by to taking time, spending a minute, saying hello, entering a conversation, getting to know each other, and becoming friends.”

Good for business

This above-average, hometown attitude creates an atmosphere that pays dividends for businesses as well.

Nick DeVito, one of two downtown barbers and president of the Vicksburg Chamber of Commerce, describes the business climate as “a hundred percent unique. We all have our own personalities, but we mesh together, and everyone brings something to the table,” he says. “We’re building a community that can be utilized by not only the people who live here but outside folks too.”

Jackie Koney, chief operating officer of Paper City Development, the organization behind restoration of several key downtown buildings as well as Vicksburg’s fabled paper mill, says, “Business owners are now really super collaborating on what we can do next.”

Koney cites examples of business owners getting together, generating ideas and bringing them to the Chamber of Commerce or village administrators. “They’re looking at each other’s products, projects and services, then discussing ways to avoid duplications and create joint efforts … like the bookstore and the brewery, or the bakery and the florist,” Koney says. “This collaboration makes us pretty tight-knit and wonderful. It’s fun for the businesses and the people who work here. It’s fun for the people who visit too.”

A cornerstone building at the intersection diagonally across from Oswalt Park is the Vicksburg Community Center, a stately two-story brick building with wrought-iron trim on the front.


From Derelict to Re-Development

A cornerstone in the revitalization of Vicksburg is The Mill at Vicksburg, a multimillion dollar renovation of the town’s former paper mill. Paper City Development, headed by former Vicksburg native Chris Moore, is turning the Simpson-Lee paper mill property into a multi-use facility that will include a hotel, residential units, brewery and event space. In addition, PCD has also renovated a number of downtown Vicksburg’s historic buildings.

Read more about the paper mill restoration project in “Going in Big” printed in October 2019 at encorekalamazoo.com/going-in-big/ as well on The Mill at Vicksburg’s website at vicksburgmill.com.


“It was called McElvain House when it opened in the 1870s as a hotel for traveling salesmen,” Koney explains. “Eventually, it was turned into a boarding house. Then it became a community center. Our intent is to bring it back as a boutique hotel, modernized but with a historic nod.”

Paper City Development is also responsible for purchasing and moving Mackenzie’s Bakery, a long-standing establishment in Kalamazoo, to Vicksburg. “We needed a downtown bakery,” she says. “We got all the recipes (from John Mackenzie, the original owner, now retired). We hired the head baker, production manager and two front-counter people.”

Adjacent to the bakery is the Prairie Ronde Artist Gallery, the home of music-residency and artist-residency programs, which John Kern, director of the Prairie Ronde Artist Residency, says are “pretty unique for a town our size.”

These programs, which run from five to seven weeks and provide a creative space for artists, have so far drawn more than 100 artists from the U.S., Canada, Israel and Eastern Europe from all genres, from music and sculpture to painting and fiber arts. Their muse is the history of the mill and papermaking. “They’re telling the story of what was and what is now, and we ask them to interact with the residents of Vicksburg as much as possible,” says Kern.

Such interaction fits well with mill history. Stories abound of olden times when safety precautions were not as extensive and children would visit their mothers inside the mill, and when the sound of the 5 o’clock whistle marked the end of the workday and the time for youngsters to return home from their outdoor play.

A bright outlook

Vicksburg’s history dates to 1831. In 1871, early settlers named their community after its founder, John Vickers. The administrative history of a decade ago was a dark spot for the village’s residents, who now number nearly 4,000. But the present is bright, and the future is predicted to be brighter yet.

“This is the time to be here. We’re building for the future,” DeVito says.

Indeed, more than 100 new homes have been constructed in Vicksburg since 2020, according to Mallery.

“We intend to make this village vital for the next hundred years, a place that brings true comfort and happiness to people,” Mallery says.

In the foreseeable future, residents and visitors will come for the organized events listed in this article’s sidebar plus large-screen exterior televisions to be installed in Oswalt Park, where people can gather to watch events such as baseball’s All-Star Game or football’s Super Bowl. At the park they can also connect to the nearby Portage Bikeway Trail System and play on lighted pickleball courts.

Vicksburg residents will also benefit from housing improvement grants, at reduced rates, for furnaces, air conditioners, and accessible entryways for persons with physical limitations in owner-occupied homes; continuous updates to the village’s cash-only capital improvement plan; and updates to master plans for land use and parks and recreation.

Underlying all of these efforts is the commitment to operate with ongoing transparency and, as Mallery says, to “keep the momentum going.”

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at robertmweir.com.

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