Benton Harbor is the poorest city in Michigan. Poverty and racial unrest led to two nights of rioting here in 2003, and vacant lots and boarded up buildings litter the downtown of this former industrial city.
But there is some beauty in Benton Harbor. On the west side of town, out by the Whirlpool National Headquarters, is an undeveloped half mile of Lake Michigan beachfront surrounded by high dunes.
The beach is part of Jean Klock park, 70 acres of lakeshore, woods and wetlands donated to the city in 1917 by John and Carrie Klock to remember their daughter Jean who died in infancy. They gave the property to the city for the children of the future, and the city promised to leave it undeveloped.
Benton Harbor Assistant City Manager Dwight Mitchell says Jean Klock park is the key to changing the city's future
"We want to change the image from an industrial kind of city to a tourist kind of location, uh, that people want to visit and want to stop because of the amenities that we have here so that's going to change the whole complexion of the community."
He is working with Whirlpool, developers and some non-profits not to promote the park, but to build a resort on and around it. Harbor Shores will be a $500 million dollar golf course, hotel, marina and luxury home development. The Harbor Shores Resort website promotes the future development as a lakeshore resort just 90 minutes from Chicago, perfect for a second home, and with a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course.
And it's that golf course that has some Benton Harbor residents like Clellan Bury fighting the development
"Oh I agree the Harbor Shores Development is good for the city, I just object to using the park."
Bury is a member of the Friends of Jean Klock park. They are upset that Harbor Shore's development plans include building three golf holes where Jean Klock Park now stands. Jack Nicklaus told developers the panoramic lake shore view golf holes will be necessary to attract people to the resort.
The golf course has been the dream of Whirlpool executives and developers for more than a decade, but getting all the necessary permits and approvals to build on the park land was difficult. Now under Michigan's current economy, the promise of jobs and future taxes removes a lot of hurdles. Mark Mitchell is a Harbor Shores Trustee, and says it was promise of jobs and taxes that sold city leaders on the plan
"So you've got the ability for the city of Benton Harbor to see new general funds coming in as a result of the project, new infrastructure, new improvements being made throughout not just the project area but throughout the city as well tied to the community benefit plans and there will absolutely be jobs."
Benton Harbor resident Marvin Heywood says he believes most of those jobs would be seasonal, and that it's not worth giving up the park so he can be a caddy
"This is the allusion of inclusion. It's as if they care about the city of Benton Harbor but who would really benefit, not the residents of Benton Harbor because most of them won't be able to get a job that's paying 17 or 18 dollars an hour."
But Mitchell says Benton Harbor residents will benefit. The Developers are working towards a community benefits program that will funnel the profits from the resort into literacy programs, credit counseling and housing rehabilitation. And Mitchell says the Friends of Jean Klock park are a vocal minority, because even when the development is finished, the beach at the park will still be there
"If you're able to look at the design plans, there's a significant distance between the golf holes and the actual beach. We tried as best we could to separate those two so there could be dual enjoyment. So as you're on the west side of the beach and you're looking at the dunes, the likelihood that you'll be able to see or be impacted by golf that is going on is very, very minimal."
But opponents of the plan say the environmental impact created by the resort, and the class barriers created by the clientele will ruin the beach for Benton Harbor resdidents. Carol Drake is the president of the Friends of John Klock park
"This park doesn't belong to Whirlpool. Jack Nicklaus likes the view but so do we. It belongs to the people of Benton Harbor and neighboring communities, but mostly to the children of Benton Harbor. If this happens, it's going to basically put a wall between the residents and the lakefront, because it's a new community, of wealthy people, I mean they're going to have to be to afford these second homes, and come to this master plan community."
The Friends of Jean Klock park wrote to Governor Granholm for help to save the park, which has received state grants for improvements in the past. But the Governor responded that it was a local issue and they should direct their concerns to city government. But Granholm and her administration promised Whirlpool Chairman Jeff Fettig in a 2006 letter to help secure infrastructure funding, provide assistance in permit approval, and provide funding for Brownfield cleanup of surrounding sites. Developer Mitchell says Granholm's help has been crucial
"Well I can't say enough about Governor Granholm and her commitment to Southwest Michigan and in particular Benton Harbor. Everything that she's committed to this project she's kept her word on and made sure that we got the support that we needed. The Governor has delivered on her side of the equation to the nth degree and she's also made sure that this project is being fulfilled through their agencies and their charters so it's been a great working relationship over the past three years."
Governor Granholm also promised support with federal agencies, which is the next hurdle for the developers. Because Benton Harbor used one-point-seven million dollars in state and federal grants to fix up the park in the past, they need to show the National Park Service that they are replacing the lost parkland with other public space of equal or greater value and public usefulness than the land being lost. The developers are proposing public space within the golf course and public walkways as the substitute. Luanne Koczma of Defense of Place, and organization dedicated to saving park land, says that's not good enough
"Their location is totally inappropriate for public park land it's parcels that would be completely within the boundary areas of their proposed golf course. Now I don't care how many connecting walkways or whatever you can put between these scattered pieces, that is not in any way, shape or form an expansion of Jean Klock park."
In the end there are simply two different visions of how Jean Klock park can best be used. For city leaders and developers, it's a resource to be utilized as part of a new tourist based economy, but for some residents, like Emma Kinnard, it's a resource to be preserved
"This was a beautiful gift that was given to us. Why not leave that gift alone. Some things you can see the beauty in what God has created. Why mess up something that don't need fixin'? This is beautiful."
But developers say the resort, and the three holes built on Jean Klock park, will be beautiful too and they hope to open it for business in the summer of 2009.