BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – This city on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan is beset with troubles: violent crime, racial strife, steep unemployment, and neighborhoods dotted with vacant homes and businesses.
In short, Benton Harbor is no one’s idea of a vacation destination. But local leaders are looking for hope from an unlikely source: a huge luxury golf resort under construction just a tee shot away from the half-empty downtown.
Supporters say the Golf Club at Harbor Shores could bring a steady stream of well-heeled tourists, along with jobs, housing and tax revenue. Opponents are skeptical.
Adding to the improbability of the project is the matter of race. The resort dedicated to an overwhelmingly white sport is taking shape in a town that is more than 90 percent black.
The centerpiece of the project is a new Jack Nicklaus-designed course. When complete, the 530-acre resort will also offer 800 cottages, homes and condominiums; restaurants and shops; a boutique hotel and spa; and deep-water marinas.
“Harbor Shores is not a cure-all. It is not a panacea for everything that we have,” Mayor Wilce Cook said. “I think it can serve as an anchor. And we can use that to entice other business and industry.”
For Nicklaus, the project is about giving a helping hand to Benton Harbor, a town of 11,000 about 100 miles east of Chicago.
“This whole golf course was set out from the start to change a community. It had nothing to do with the game of golf, really. It was changing the community through the game of golf,” he said.
The golf course and surrounding developments are owned by a consortium of three nonprofit groups, which, according to Nicklaus, intended to put all the money they make back into the community.
“To have that kind of project, where nobody’s profiting from it except for the people who live here … that’s the important part of it,” he said.
Tom Watson, who played an 18-hole charity exhibition round with Nicklaus and fellow greats Arnold Palmer and Johnny Miller at the course’s recent grand opening, said golf is an inclusive pastime.
“This game has been criticized as an elitist game. If you take anybody of any walk of life, get them with a golf club in their hand, and they get a passion for the game, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you do, who you are, what color your skin is,” Watson said.
Benton Harbor long has been considered one of Michigan’s most economically distressed communities. It has lost about 15 percent of its population over the past two decades. On any given night, few cars and even fewer people travel down Main Street, where many of the storefronts are vacant.
Since April, the city has been run with the help of a state-appointed emergency financial manager.
The town was also scarred by unrest in 2003, when racially charged riots broke out following the death of a black motorcyclist during a high-speed police chase. Rioters burned down buildings and attacked police.
Supporters of the resort say 20 to 30 million people live within a half-day’s drive of Benton Harbor, and a significant proportion in the coming years will come to play golf and shop at Harbor Shores. They hope visitors also make their way into town to spend money on Main Street.
Others are not as optimistic.
“It’s not an economic-revitalization program. Everyone knows golf courses are going south. We don’t need another golf course here,” said John Mann, a 60-year-old retiree from Kalamazoo who attended an anti-Harbor Shores demonstration at the grand opening.
Michigan already has more than 800 public golf courses, and many have struggled during the recession. But supporters insist the new course and surrounding development will only become more attractive as the economy recovers.
Benton Harbor agreed to lease a portion of Jean Klock Park on the shore of Lake Michigan to the Harbor Shores development team, angering Mann and others who have fought plans for the course. They claim it’s illegal for public park land to be used for private interests.
Mann said the Klock family deeded the park to the city nearly a century ago with the understanding that it would be set aside for public use.
“That’s the way it should be,” he said as dozens of protesters demonstrated in front of the entrance to the course. They held signs reading “Corporate Theft of Public Land” and “Stop The Racism.”
Few people dispute the aesthetics of the course, where lush green fairways wind through wetlands and sand dunes along the Paw Paw River within chipping distance of the lake. Not long ago, the land was home to abandoned factories and industrial waste.
It’s not the first time a Nicklaus course has been laid over an environmentally troubled site.
In Michigan, a Dearborn course called the TPC of Michigan was built atop an old dump site. The course is now so well-regarded that the Senior Players Championship was held there for years. In Anaconda, Mont., the Old Works Golf Course sits on a former copper smelter that once was polluted by toxic waste.
National golf officials have already given their stamp of approval to Harbor Shores, which was awarded the Senior PGA Championship in 2012 and 2014.
Nicklaus said he is proud to be a part of the project, which he hopes will restore some stability and prosperity to Benton Harbor.
“The community has come together and they said, ‘Hey, we want to work together. We don’t want to just be the poor child on the other side of the river. We want to build that and have it grow up and be one great community again,’ which it was a long, long time ago.”