Golf Course Revitalizes Downtown Benton Harbor, Mich.

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This week, for the second time in three years, the Golf Club at Harbor Shores is hosting the 75th Senior PGA Championship. The pristine, four-year-old public golf course, designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus, is in downtown Benton Harbor, Mich. and has become the centerpiece of efforts to revitalize the city economy.

The only reminder of the past on the west edge of Benton Harbor’s downtown area is the CSX railroad line. Gone are the factories that once stood there, factories that had thrived through the mid-1980s until they were shut down.

The Whirlpool Corporation, one such company based out of Benton Harbor, Mich., had shipped appliance manufacturing jobs overseas. Jeff Noel works for Whirlpool and has lived in the area for 21 years. He saw firsthand the aftermath of the late 1980s.

Benton Harbor's seventh green overlooks the water. (Greg Echlin/Only A Game)
Benton Harbor's seventh green overlooks the water. (Greg Echlin/Only A Game)

“[At] one time, there were over 3 million feet of manufacturing,” Noel said.  “There were 6,000 people employed.  Literally, in an 18-month period, companies went bankrupt, factories were closed, and it had an unbelievably devastating effect on the community as a whole.”

But even before Noel arrived, there was a vision to build a golf course on the old factory sites.

That vision, years later, has been realized. Now, Noel speaks from the lobby of a new hotel that is near completion, one of a handful of commercial and residential structures that have sprung up the last few years. They border a 4-year-old sloping public golf course that features undulating greens, sand dunes along the fairways, and wetlands fed by the waters of Lake Michigan.

But at the time, why? Why a golf course?

Noel cites the location, right on the shores of Lake Michigan, as a chief reason for development.

“The land and the topography didn’t lend itself for heavy industry, both the soft soils and the contaminated soils, [and] the amount of wetlands in the area,” Noel said. “So it was really the obstacles that were in the way of redevelopment that kept leading back to a golf course to change the topography. It would change enough for people to come and build residential, commercial and retail [businesses].”

[sidebar title="PGA Tour To Host First Par-3 Tourney" width="330" align="right"]In June, the PGA Tour will host its first sanctioned event involving a par-3 golf course.[/sidebar]Harbor Shores is a non-profit entity and it took more than 10 years to acquire 530 parcels of land to build the golf course. One of its unique features is that it’s not just near downtown, in a way it is downtown.

Whirlpool Chairman and CEO Jeff Fettig has taken notice. His company built a new main office nearby.

"Our confidence in this area is so strong today that we as a company have committed almost $100 million in new facilities and investments, mostly in downtown Benton Harbor,” Fettig said.

Fettig says the company has been working with non-profit groups in an attempt to lure other businesses to the area. Down the street from Whirlpool’s main office is Lark and Son’s Bar-B-Que.  Restaurant owner Willie Lark says he likes the changes he has witnessed in recent years.

“The change I’ve seen is that Whirlpool has become a very important instrument in Benton Harbor’s growth,” Lark said. “They’re continuing to build, add on and create high end jobs."

But not all the news is good.  Benton Harbor is still fiscally unstable, so the city government is under the supervision of the state of Michigan.  Earlier this month, a judge granted a stay that postponed the recall election of the mayor.

[sidebar title="Gary Player On Only A Game" align="right"]Listen to our interview with golf legend Gary Player about the demise of the Eisenhower Tree at Augusta National.[/sidebar]Much uncertainty remains about the city government. Marcus Muhammad, a liaison for the Michigan Department of Education, has his doubts.  Harbor Shores is the home course for the high school boys and must direct its profits back into the community, but it may be years before the course turns a profit.

“I like to be optimistic. That’s good.” Muhammad said. “That’s helpful and healthy.  But you also have to be realistic. They do give money to the Boys and Girls Club. That’s good, but it has to be more.”

This week, a $75,000 check was presented to the Boys and Girls Club and First Tee, a youth golf program.  Also, new homes were built around the golf course by Habitat for Humanity.

The 50-and-over senior pros are playing a course designed by golf luminary Jack Nicklaus. With Tiger Woods slowed by injuries, Nicklaus still holds the record for major championship victories.

These days, Nicklaus spends more time as a golf course architect than he does playing on the links.  So when Nicklaus designed a course on a Superfund site in Benton Harbor, he anticipated this question before a news conference two years ago.

“Why Harbor Shores?” Nicklaus said. “My answer is always, ‘Why not Harbor Shores?’”

Nicklaus had previously designed a course on a Superfund site in Dearborn, Mich. But once the site in Benton Harbor was cleared of abandoned buildings, trash, and contaminated soil, Nicklaus says he developed a fondness for this project.

“It was actually really a lot of fun, more fun for a variety of reasons,” he said. “It’s always fun to do a golf course. It’s always fun to see the golf course finish. More than that, it’s fun to see a community revitalized.”

The Senior PGA Championship will also swing through Benton Harbor in 2016 and 2018. It may take another 10 years to fully realize the long-term benefits, but in the meantime, golfers and spectators will have to be satisfied with a new downtown landscape that includes Lake Michigan as a giant, but scenic, water hazard.

This segment aired on May 24, 2014.


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