In a recent New York Times magazine article on the state of affairs in Benton Harbor, Jonathan Mahler wrote a fascinating report on how one de-industrialized town in Michigan is trying to alter its trajectory after 30 years of economic decline. The story focuses on the recent development of a Jack Nicklaus golf course, Harbor Shores, largely on the site of demolished Whirlpool factories and other former industrial plants.
When first settled by French traders in the 17th and 18th centuries, the area that is modern-day Benton Harbor was a marshy area at the confluence of the St. Joseph and Paw Paw rivers where an abundance of wild rice grew. In addition to beaver pelts, the Miami nation that lived in the area traded a wide array of hedge fruits and vegetables. Southwest Michigan, historically, was the great provider of food and produce to growing communities throughout the region.
From the 1850s until the 1970s, Benton Harbor became the industrial heart of Southwest Michigan. In the 1860s, industrialists dug a mile-long canal into the heart of the growing city to serve the growing number of factories and the then-huge fruit processing and exporting market. Auto parts and metal forging replaced food as the town’s principal activity.
In 1911, the forerunner of Whirlpool was founded in Benton Harbor by the Upton brothers, local entrepreneurs. In 1948, anticipating that the town might not return to World War II levels of economic activity, they formed The Whirlpool Foundation with the stated goal of ensuring that the company maintained its focus on the future of Benton Harbor and its outlying areas. Members of the Upton family still live in the area and one grandson is its long-standing Congressman.
The creation of Harbor Shores is a direct result of the Upton brothers’ vision in 1948. It is a step toward recreating Benton Harbor using the assets that come naturally to it. In the case of Harbor Shores, this is the beautiful scenery along Lake Michigan, an aspect of the community long-ignored as it followed its industrial destiny. As Jonathon Mahler points out in the New York Times Magazine, taken alone, Harbor Shores does not solve the area’s difficulties:
“In the short term, Harbor Shores could be a tough sell to developers. Plans for a water park have already been jettisoned, and no hoteliers have expressed sufficient interest to build there yet.
Long-term, though, Benton Harbor’s future as a tourist town seems foreordained. Harbor Shores is well under way, and in any case, what are the city’s other options?
In between Harbor Shores’ champions and detractors are a lot of people who question the wisdom of pinning the town’s hopes on a golf course but who acknowledge that something is better than nothing.
Harbor Shores is not without precedent. Recently, a golf course helped revive a troubled neighborhood in Atlanta known as East Lake. But at this point, it seems more likely that Harbor Shores will simply bring a new population to Benton Harbor and hasten the town’s fracturing into two distinct communities: the second-home owners and Whirlpool executives who live inside Harbor Shores and frequent the Arts District — and everyone else.
The question is, can “everyone else” include a stable, working-class population, or is Benton Harbor beyond repair?”
Benton Harbors “other options” and the region’s future prosperity, including job growth, depend on taking advantage of the area’s other natural assets. Aerial maps from 1870 show Michigan’s famous orchards and produce farms butting right up against Benton Harbor’s boundaries. Chicago would not have been fed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries without Southwest Michigan’s extraordinary climate, water resources, topography and soils.
These attributes may well carry the seeds of the area’s next step along the path to further regeneration. The re-creation of sophisticated food processing, advanced agriculture and agri-tourism businesses can feed directly into the burgeoning local food movement in a 26 million-strong consumer market within a three hour drive of Benton Harbor. The area’s economic vitality can be boosted and jobs at all levels can be created through the development of new agricultural-related businesses.