Taking a swing at redevelopment
Community leaders use golf course as an economic driver in Benton Harbor.
Prior to the 1980s, Benton Harbor was a bustling Rust Belt community.
There were 550 acres of manufacturing facilities and a giant 24-acre cloverleaf interchange to allow for easier commutes for the 6,600 workers heading to the factories every day.
But then, within an 18-month period, many of the factories, including Whirlpool Corp.’s main manufacturing hub, closed down. Some closures were due to bankruptcy; other companies simply relocated. A majority of the workers were left unemployed.
Adding to the departure of manufacturing was the migration of retail out of downtown Benton Harbor into suburban shopping malls. The residential and commercial real estate vacancy rate was high, and tax revenue was low, said Greg Vaughn, COO and vice president of business development at Benton Harbor economic development organization Cornerstone Alliance.
“A multitude of small problems turned into a big problem,” Vaughn said. “Something had to be done.”
As the city’s population shrank and the local economy worsened, community leaders continued to try to determine what could be done with 550 acres of empty, sometimes contaminated, land. Initial consultants in the 1980s suggested a golf course development rather than manufacturing. But the reality was no one had the funds to clean up the orphaned real estate. The golf course project never got off the ground.
In 1993, another consultant group was called in to look at how to create an economic hub on the property. Again, manufacturing wasn’t suggested as the property was felt to be too close to the residential areas of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, so the suggestion was, again, a golf course.
The idea began to resonate, but many of the cement slabs from factories still plotted the land. Abandoned steel mills had to be torn down; a Superfund site contaminated with radium and mercury had to be cleaned up.
“We created recognition that we had a long way to go before we addressed a golf course,” said Jeff Noel, vice president of communications and public affairs at Whirlpool, one of the major driving forces in the “Twin Cities” redevelopment.
By 1996, the community embarked on a cleanup of the site. Then, in 2003, with seed money from the Whirlpool Foundation, a collective group of community leaders began planning a golf course with golf professional and golf course developer Jack Nicklaus.
Nicklaus saw great potential in the site, which overlooks Lake Michigan. With a little bit of acquisition, there was also the possibility of including the Paw Paw River in the development, Noel said.
The resulting Harbor Shores Golf Club opened in 2010 and hosted the Senior PGA Championship in 2012 and 2014. The tournament is slated to return next year and again in 2018. The course is public, as well, with Benton Harbor and Berrien County rates.
While the world-class golf course might have seemed out of place next to what has been, economically, one of the hardest hit communities in one of the hardest hit states, it spurred development that has spread throughout Berrien County.
Largely led by Whirlpool, the development isn’t without its naysayers, but Vaughn said it was better than continuing on the path of the previous three decades. If it weren’t for the golf course, there likely would still be 300 million square feet of eroded buildings, 48 brownfield sites, the Superfund site and two dumpsites.
“This wasn’t done because we needed a golf course,” Vaughn said. “We wanted something that really stood out for Benton Harbor.”
Noel said the $450 million Harbor Shores Development Project, which also includes a resort, helped leverage the community for everything else that has happened since the golf course opened, including bringing in former president Jimmy Carter to help build 22 Habitat for Humanity homes.
There are high-priced parcels of land and developments near the golf course, but the mixed demographics are a positive moving forward, Vaughn said.
All together, Noel said about $800 million worth of redevelopment projects are linked, including about $100 million of Whirlpool projects, from a new, three-phase headquarters complex to the relocation of high-tech research jobs from Indiana.
Every street corner of the development was mapped out, Noel said. Each step was meant to move the community forward, and the involved groups and community did their best to avoid negative gentrification.
“From the time this concept began, it’s helped energize the community so that more resources and energies went into the redevelopment of the communities,” Noel said. “It was all part of an overarching plan and an open-ended community vision.”
The same groups that helped fund the golf course have helped fund two $12 million Boys and Girls Clubs — a youth and a teen center — and 600 affordable homes. Also included in the golf course is youth golf academy First Tee Clubhouse and a summer youth employment group. Workers at both the golf course and the hotel largely come from distressed census areas, Noel said.
At one point, 94 percent of the buildings in Benton Harbor were largely vacant. Vaughn said redevelopment has helped bring down the number of decrepit buildings. The new Whirlpool facilities have helped draw other auxiliary businesses, such as a $1.2 million Chemical Bank, coffee shops and restaurants. Above the downtown storefronts, apartments are being renovated and there’s a wait list for them, Vaughn said.
Noel said there are no longer vacant storefronts in St. Joseph.
The redevelopment efforts in St. Joseph and Benton Harbor have helped the economic climate in southwest Michigan, but the Senior PGA Championship presented by Kitchen Aid is meant to bring the attention community leaders believe it deserves and to attract more residents, businesses and tourists.
Each time the tournament is held, it draws big name golfers such as Colin Montgomerie, Vijay Singh and John Daly. Twelve hours of television coverage is broadcast across the globe during the four-day tournament, including “Championship Sunday” on NBC.
The PGA of America enjoys its participation in the Benton Harbor area, said Ryan Ogle, PGA Championship director. He said it helps the PGA to tap into a market to which it otherwise wouldn’t have access.
The effects of hosting the tour go beyond the actual event. Each year the tournament is held, PGA officials spend months in offices in Benton Harbor preparing for the tournament. The tour also gives back to the community, working to help the Benton Harbor Promise organization support Benton Harbor high school graduates in achieving a post-secondary education, as well as the Boys & Girls Club and the First Tee program. The amount of the tour’s support during the first two tournaments is up to $500,000.
Ogle also said the community receives approximately $10 million in marketing value through the TV coverage and featured segments during the tournament.
“We really want to help shine a light on a community in an area that doesn’t get the attention it deserves as a great place to work, live or visit,” he said. “The end goal, when the PGA wraps up here — whether that’s 2018 or 10 or 20 years down the road — we hope people say, ‘Man, I’m glad the PGA was here and had an impact on the community.’”
If it weren’t for the golf course, the community might still be in a downward spiral.
“It’s not the answer nor the solution, but it’s hard not to argue it’s a good catalyst,” Noel said. “I keep asking, ‘How easy would it be to sell a community with 550 acres of cement slabs and green goop oozing out of the ground?’
“There’s more to be done, but people can see there’s a structural difference. We’ve changed the tenor of the discussion and that it’s OK to have a discussion about bettering the community.”