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The Mathieu Gast Home
Improvement Act of 1976, MCL
REAL ESTATE AGENT Pete Jorgensen has been instrumental in reviving the
Lions Park Drive neighborhood in St. Joseph. Until the ‘80s much of the
neighborhood along Lake Michigan near Silver Beach was considered a slum.
A sense of place
July 21, 2002
By KATHY ZERLER
Pete Jorgensen sells houses and builds neighborhoods
ST. JOSEPH - Pete Jorgensen is well known
locally as a real estate agent and all-around
He was the driving force behind the residential
housing renovations near Silver Beach and is a
longtime political and community activist who
said he believes in stabilizing neighborhoods by
finding ways to provide individual family
“When you give people a sense of place, you
give them a sense of worth. I try to find ways for
people to buy in neighborhoods, and to build
neighborhoods, by selling homes,” he said in his
office in St. Joseph. “Kids are better off when
they have a place, a sense of place.
Neighborhoods are stabilized by home
Jorgensen is the president of Pete Jorgensen/John
Ackerman Real Estate, an agency that is also
known as “ecohousing.” The name - not
capitalized - refers to selling homes for economic
development with an eye toward ecological
There is an irony in that name.
Jorgensen’s real estate office is on the site of a
former gas station. When he bought the building
at 1302 Main St. in St. Joseph in 1986, he
thought he was buying a clean site. He has been
fighting the liability of owning a contaminated
property ever since.
“I shot myself in the foot on this one,” he said,
aiming his index finger at his feet, shod in sandals
without socks. “The EPA (Environmental
Protection Agency) considers me an expert on
land, dirt and contamination.”
Born at the beginning of the baby boom in 1946
and raised in Fairplain, he has the memory of the
proverbial elephant. When he tells a personal
story, Jorgensen punctuates it with historical
“I married my high school sweetheart, made
babies and waited to die in Vietnam,” he said of
his coming-of-age years in the volatile ‘60's.
A 1964 graduate of St. Joseph High School -
which then accepted Fairplain residents -
Jorgensen was classified 1-A, but somehow
missed the draft. Instead, he began a career at
Benton Harbor Malleable that would include
union organizing. He raised two children,
Kimberly Gane, 35, and Vernon “Burt” Nielsen
Jorgensen III, 34.
Both of his children live in the area. Kim works
at Fifth Third Bank, and Burt works for Atlantic
Automotive. Jorgensen considers them his best
friends. He said he still loves all three of his ex-
“Don’t you always love someone who was a
part of you? We’re all connected, we are all one,”
he said, adding that he is single but not available.
“I’m in a committed relationship, and I hope to
be married again one day.”
current titles are “The Death and Life of Great
American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs (he’s reading this
one for the second time), and “God, a Biography,”
by Jack Miles.
“Some people say ‘Pete Jorgensen thinks he know
everything,’ and to that I say, ‘I don’t know
everything yet, but I want to, so what can you teach
me while you’re here?”
“This is a small town. If you’re active and you say
stuff, people will find something wrong, but
I’m succeeding in spite of them,” he said with a
smile. “I get up every day trying to make things
right. I have a background in quality assurance; that’
s what I’m used to doing. It’s all part of team-
In a recent election; Jorgensen said, he “walked, not
ran” for Berrien County District 5 commissioner.
“I didn’t do it to win. I did it for community
building,” he said. “Community development is my
In a statement for this story, Jorgensen wrote that
his objective is “to be the example to the real estate
professionals in my community upholding the
highest standards of integrity. To lead the regional
economic developments efforts by consistent
marketing of the Silver Beach neighborhood.”
He said he considers real estate work his
opportunity to make the community a better place.
He was one of the visionaries who saw promise in
what had become a slum in St. Joseph.
“My whole life has involved community thinking, in
organizing community thinking,” he said. “The Lions
Park Drive area was a ghetto when I bought my first
house there in 1983. There were crack houses there
before we even knew what crack was. I sold the
most notorious crack house there, and it became the
precedent for new construction in that
Jorgensen said he considers 1987 the year when the
property values flipped in the neighborhood. The
snug rows of dilapidated houses began to sell, and
values soared from $30,000 to $100,000 and up.
“I still call it a ghetto, and I’m still working on
improving it,” he said, smiling again. “I’m possessed
by a spirit, and it’s a good spirit, that tells me if it’s
not right I have to make it right or I scrap it. And, if
I have to scrap it, then I have to analyze it.
“My thinking is reflected in my work. I build stuff. I
make stuff happen.”
|From his job as general foreman at Benton Harbor
Malleable, he went on to work at Gast
Manufacturing as a machine operator, then on to
Chicago Casting/General Electric. He quit GE and
moved back to this area in 1976 when Johnny
Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” was
the No. 1 hit record.
“We are a product of our times. I don’t forget
things. Things matter. There isn’t much that you
do each day that doesn’t matter to somebody,” he
said, quoting from Paycheck’s song and rattling
off several facts from history.
Active in the Council fro a World-Class
community, Jorgensen said he believes in no
barriers and believes in the team-building he once
did as a union organizer for the AFL-CIO.
“In the ‘big picture,’ decisions are made by
consensus. You can’t do nothing by yourself. I
learned that at age 10,” he said, jumping up and
grabbing a photo of two little boys wearing
The photo is of Jorgensen and his younger
brother, David. They were coached by their
father, Vernon Nielsen Jorgensen, after whom
“Pete” (Vernon Nielsen Jorgensen II) was named.
Pete recalled his first lesson in team-building
during a Little League baseball game in Benton
Harbor’s Union Park.
“We were losing and my father put me in to
pitch. I was a little guy, and he put me in only
because we were losing. ...I threw a few wild
balls, and my father stopped the game. He walked
up to me and said, ‘Son, you have people behind
you that are there to support you. You don’t
have to do everything by yourself, all you have to
do is throw strikes.’
“That was my dad. He was The Coach,” Pete
said, sitting down as tears welled up in his eyes.
Composing himself, Jorgensen talked about the
closeness of his family when he was small, of
being active in youth organizations at First
United Methodist Church, of his membership in
the Young Republicans.
Drawing from the stability of that background, he
describes himself now “a very proud father” and
a “tenacious and spiritual person with a strong
A typical day for Jorgensen revolves around his
“I get up when I wake up and I go to bed when
I’m too tired to work anymore. Work is my life,
my life is my work. I got my work ethic from my
father, and my children share it,” he said, pacing
around an office that is like a living scrapbook of
his life in community development.
The walls are papered three and four deep with
maps, newspaper articles, photos and awards.
“Each day that you do what you love in life is the
last day you work. I view each day as an
adventure without end.”
He reads four to five books at a time. Two of his