Neighborhood Change

Golf Course Wars in Benton Harbor

Golf courses have been lightning rods and symbols for class struggle around the world, as in Morelos, Mexico, where a golf course sucking up the town of Tepoztlan as water […]

Golf courses have been lightning rods and symbols for class struggle around the world, as in Morelos, Mexico, where a golf course sucking up the town of Tepoztlan as water led to deadly violent clashes in 1996.

Golf courses are oases of peace and vegetation, but high greens fees and a general air of exclusivity surrounding the sport often makes them seem like symbols of luxury for the haves, not the have-nots.

Now a golf course is at the center of a highly controversial massive development plan in Benton Harbor, a 90-percent African-American lakefront town in southwest Michigan with high rates of poverty and unemployment.

By anyone’s account, Benton Harbor is desperately in need of investment and change.

But the specific plans and symbolism around the golf course make many locals afraid this change means a Benton Harbor that doesn’t include them.

The town has plummeted into economic despair since major industries pulled up stakes in the 1980s. The only major employer left is Whirlpool Corp., which has its corporate headquarters there. Whirlpool is spearheading the 500-acre plan to turn Benton Harbor into an upscale destination for tourists, conferences and vacation home-buyers, with promises of creating jobs and economic revival for locals to boot.

The focal point of the whole plan is three lakefront holes on a course designed — like the Morelos one — by Jack Nicklaus. Its backers say without these lake view holes, the whole deal is off. The problem is, the land where those holes would be located is in Jean Klock Park, deeded to the city in 1917 by the Klocks with the promise the land would remain public parkland in perpetuity. The Chicago Reader aptly calls the park the project’s sand trap.

Environmentalists and preservationists say the golf course would damage the ecologically sensitive dunes and set a dangerous precedent in taking public land for private profit. They call it environmental racism, since the park is the local African American community’s only significant public space and beach access. (The golf holes would be on 22 acres of the 77-acre park.)

In his book The Other Side of the River, Alex Kotlowitz chronicled the racial tensions roiling Benton Harbor and neighboring mostly white St. Joseph, through the lens of the murder of an African American boy who went to a mostly white night club in St. Joe. Many opponents of the golf course plan see it as a continuation of systemic racism, feelings that also surfaced in 2003 riots over the death of a motorcyclist in a police chase.

Some residents oppose the entire development plan, imagining the existing low-income, undereducated community will not have a place in the new Benton Harbor that developers envision. In 2005 opposition to the plan sparked a recall vote of one of the city councilmen most ardently backing it. Glen Yarborough was recalled, but contested the vote, alleging election fraud by local minister and activist Rev. Edward Pinkney. Pinkney is now serving jail time for those charges.

His supporters see him as a victim of racially motivated power struggles which they compare to the old small town south.

Meanwhile almost no one wants to see Benton Harbor remain as it is, with crumbling streets and jobless, out-of-school youth hanging around aimlessly. Many hope for grassroots, community-based development — in conjunction with the development plan or otherwise — which gives locals a chance to stay in their community and watch it prosper.

Driving through Benton Harbor Memorial Day weekend I visited one of the town’s bright spots. The delicious-smelling smoke and lively music emanating from Lark and Sons BBQ and Car Wash draw people from miles around for affordable ribs, shrimp, chicken�and car washes. Perhaps subsidies for local businesses, rather than mega-development projects, could foster more of these sustainable, vibrant enterprises and shape a future for Benton Harbor that welcomes everyone.

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