Golf Helps Clean Up Benton Harbor


Benton Harbor has recently been in the local and national news more than it would like, generally focused around the city’s financial troubles that led to a state-appointed emergency manager.

I personally don’t know if that city needs one or not, but at least one national liberal media outlet has used the situation to — once again, not surprisingly and with inaccuracies — bash conservative points of view. In late April, Rachael Maddow of MSNBC negatively attacked the limited use of Jean Klock Park for one of the area’s few gems — the Golf Club at Harbor Shores — claiming it was part of a Republican over-reach of power.

Maddow made several false comments and proved she’s never been to the site — but I have — and it’s now a beautiful piece of property that is bringing new revenue and jobs to a city in desperate need of such. Maddow continued to show her lack of knowledge as she kept referring to what was going to happen — a golf course to come — when the facts are it’s already built and open, with Gov. Granholm’s blessing per the stroke of a pen no less.

But this blog is not about politics, it’s about golf. While a legal battle still brews, the short story is that with the city’s and state’s blessing and the backing of locally-based Whirpool Corp., Jack Nicklaus was invited to turn mostly wasteland and little-used portions of the nearby park into a premier golf resort. In a phone interview last year, before the grand opening of Harbor Shores, Nicklaus told me and other media this:

“I’m obviously excited about the Harbor Shores project. It’s more than just a golf course, it’s a community revitalization project that I deeply believe in. When I first looked at the piece of property I said, ‘well, where’s the property?’ because we had factories, we had toxic waste, we had dumps, we had everything you could possibly think of where you could say nothing is there. But then you look at the bright side and we had some holes in sand dunes on the lake, we had two rivers running through it, some beautiful wooded areas. So to be able to take all this, clean up the areas that needed cleaning up, then tie it into a golf course that I think turned out to be really pretty is something special.”

Harbor Shores is special — and I recommend making the drive to play a round or two. Holes 7-9 are at the pinnacle of the political debate. They start at a swampy portion of the park, go up the backside of the Lake Michigan dunes, across the backside of the dunes, and back toward the swampy land. Golfers get to see Lake Michigan on the No. 7 green and No. 8 tee, but otherwise beachgoers utilizing the premier elements of the city park will never see a single golfer unless they look backwards, and upward into the sky.

Michigander Chris Rule, a native of Holt, was Nicklaus’ right hand man in managing the Harbor Shores design. The golf course has hired a majority of staff from Benton Harbor. The development includes homes and condos (which are admittedly pricey). A hotel and other businesses are planned for development to support the new homeowners and visitors, employing even more people.

The course will host the 2012 and 2014 Senior PGA Championship, helping bring professional golf back to Michigan. A precursor to that future economic boost for the area was last August’s grand opening spectacular where Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, and Johnny Miller played a skins game that raised $1 million for local charities. It was the first time the four had ever played as a group, a historic occasion.

The development is owned and managed by a non-profit entity for the sake of local charities benefiting from the proceeds — another fact Maddow and other critics fail to mention. Harbor Shores is the impetus behind a revitalization effort for the area that has forever struggled since 5,000 manufacturing jobs evaporated when Whirlpool shuttered the largest washer and dryer manufacturing plant in the world, and other connected companies shut down, more than 20 years ago. St. Joseph has since rebounded fairly well with tourism, but while Benton Harbor remained down, the downtown area (which neighbors Harbor Shores) has already seen huge improvements as confidence seems to be returning.

I don’t have much history with Benton Harbor myself, but have surely seen the positive results that golf has played in this community’s spirit and renewed hope. Just the look in the eyes of the kids in The First Tee program there says it all.