Depressed City Divided Over Proposed Golf Course

Benton Harbor
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- Can three waterfront golf holes in a "Jack Nicklaus Signature" course save Benton Harbor, a tumbledown town marked by factory closures, high unemployment, and years of simmering racial frustration and suspicion?

Five years after riots swept this southwestern Michigan city -- where the average income is $17,000 a year and 9 out of 10 residents are black -- state and local officials are backing a revitalization plan centered on a 500-acre hotel, convention center and residential development spearheaded by Whirlpool Corp., whose headquarters is here.

But Whirlpool and the nonprofit consortium developing the project say it all hinges on the seizure of 22 acres of public beachfront dunes in Jean Klock Park on Lake Michigan, the city's only beach.

The rest of the golf course would be located largely on reclaimed industrial and vacant land. But the developers say the three holes with lake views will make or break the project.

The proposal has opened bitter divisions throughout the community, as evidenced in a four-hour public meeting on April 17 that was ripe with hyperbole, accusations and biblical metaphors.

The 77-acre park was donated to the government in 1917 by John and Carrie Klock in memory of their deceased infant daughter, with the stipulation that it remain parkland. The developers say that if they give Benton Harbor more public land in exchange, they will not be violating the Klock deed.

Ardent supporters of the redevelopment plan describe it as the cornerstone of Benton Harbor's rebirth and a way to finally let black residents share the prosperity that characterizes neighboring St. Joseph, a quaint, mostly white town. Many Benton Harbor residents say that if the sand dunes must be sacrificed for such a lofty goal, so be it.

Whirlpool's vice president for community and government relations, Jeffrey Noel, said that profit from the golf course will be poured back into community education and arts programs and that at least 10 percent of construction jobs will go to local residents. The project also includes an affordable-housing component.

"There's a lot more that will come out of that project than just the golf course," said Bonita McAfee Mitchell, 46, a Benton Harbor native who runs a youth suicide-prevention program. "A lot of kids will have the opportunity to dream again. When I lived in Los Angeles, I would drive to Beverly Hills and dream. These kids in Benton Harbor have too much hopelessness around them. They need some light. That project represents light, in spite of what anyone else says."

Opposition to the golf course comes from two main groups: environmentalists upset about damage to the dunes ecosystem, and locals who think they will be left out of the economic turnaround that the project is supposed to bring.

"People plan to profit a lot from this project," said Belinda Brown 48, a home health-care provider. "Why is there suddenly so much money for this project, yet Benton Harbor has been in the state it's in for so long? We don't want big developers coming in here with their own selfish greed and we get nothing. Yes, we need change, but change needs to come from the bottom up."

Barney Brooks, a local resident who is unemployed, said at the April 17 meeting that he would welcome the jobs created by the development. "But I wish my family's future didn't depend on a golf course I will probably never go to," he said.

Some said the park in its current state is "pathetic" and "scary," strewn with used condoms and broken glass. But the plan's opponents say it shouldn't take a major development to clean up the park, and they describe its conversion to a golf course as environmental racism.

"There must be a way they can do this project without taking the dunes," said Hugh McDiarmid, spokesman for the Michigan Environmental Council. "They are framing it as if everything hinges on the park, but they must have a Plan B. This wouldn't happen in Grosse Pointe or Lake Forest" -- wealthy lakefront Michigan and Illinois suburbs.

Lana Pollack, who is on the board of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, said any land removed from the public trust must by law be immediately replaced with alternative parcels. She said the 38 acres of largely industrial land that the developers plan to make into a bike path are not a fair swap for the pristine dunes.

"When land is given to the government and told it is forever, what's the strength of that?" Pollack asked. "This is a very poor and desperate community, and it's a company town. . . . They say they are teaching kids to read. But a community shouldn't have to make a choice between whether their kids have after-school tutoring or a public park."

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