Benton Harbor today – Part 4February 25th, 2012 | Posted by in Regional economics
“My memory of Benton Harbor as a child was endless fruit markets,” — Bernina is a single mother with two young adult children and one 11-year-old still at home. Her husband was killed about 10 years ago in a shooting at a corner store in Benton Harbor where he was shopping. She is now the first person you would meet as you enter Transformations, an agency which aims to help the poor and the unemployed find new routes out of long-term joblessness.
“I could have stayed in South Haven and been sorry for myself,” she told me. “But I decided that the only way I could deal with how I felt was to be part of trying to change what Benton Harbor had become”.
On a hot day in June, 2009, before a group of about 60 appointed and elected officials in Benton Harbor, Whirlpool CEO Dave Whitwam said:
I have to take you back two decades to the difficult but necessary decision for Whirlpool to close its St. Joseph division [in the face of changing global business conditions]. My predecessor [former CEO] Jack Sparks said, ‘We have to do something with that land to provide the highest and best use for the community’… For a variety of reasons, those early plans were not carried out … but what we’re here to celebrate today is a project that will be transformational for all of our communities.
What Whitwam was talking about was the recently developed championship Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course to bring increased property taxes, construction and service jobs to the community. It is part of an effort to transform the city and its image. Benton Harbor has had few legitimate recreational facilities in the past. The golf course and parks developed with it by a consortium of development agencies, Whirlpool and not-for-profit entities begin to leverage the community’s position on the shores of Lake Michigan from a tourism and recreational perspective.
These are two reflections on the recent history of Benton Harbor; one from the former chairman of the largest employer in Benton Harbor; and another from a widowed African-American mother, a victim of the violence that has become a hallmark of cities deprived by the evolution of the global economic system of the main source of income for their populations.
For all of its problems, Benton Harbor has several natural, social and community assets. For example, there is the decades-old vision of the Upton Brothers, founders of Whirlpool, who after the World War II created the Whirlpool Foundation as they foresaw that their home communities would undergo wrenching change in the second half of the twentieth century.
Benton Harbor, from its founding used its access to water only for commerce. It has a breathtaking and underused coastline on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan; it seems to be healing 140 years of grumbling conflict with nearby communities less committed to industry. Until about five years ago and since the onset of the gradual decline in the industrial base of Benton Harbor in the 1970s it has been difficult to see anything but decline for the community.
Benton Harbor today is a divided community. It has a large, poor, unskilled and largely African-American population. Property prices have sunk and property tax revenues dwindled, so the schools have suffered. The town exhibits high crime rates and poor healthcare profiles. It also has begun to develop a more prosperous element clustered around the beaches and the new golf course. Neighboring St. Joseph has deeded property tax revenues from the new developments around the golf course to Benton Harbor for 25 years to sustain and improve its tax revenues.
Also, Whirlpool has recently begun the construction of a new headquarters facility at the west end of the old downtown area of the city.
In 2009, an ambitious state-funded streetscape project began on Main Street. It is now complete and the infrastructure looks terrific. In spite of this, the decay resulting from 30 years of declining economic activity dominates the landscape.
The Benton Harbor Fruit Market location, shown above left, closed as part of Urban Renewal in 1967. The goal was to move a lot of heavy traffic away from the city center. Sadly, the removal (the current fruit market is by the regional airport, 10 minutes from town) coincided with the decline in retail activity on Main Street as more shops moved to modern malls on the outskirts of the city. Two reasons to be on Main Street disappeared within a few years.
One of the most challenging issues facing communities undergoing economic change is recognizing that it is happening. In few cases has this happened.
Pittsburgh is an example of a city which is now growing again after more than 20 years in decline and steel mills closures. Benton Harbor, like Pittsburgh, failed to develop the kind of compacts between the private and public sectors to arrest the decline by leveraging the area’s natural advantages.
Efforts such as they were tried to resuscitate the area’s industrial forging, metal bending and automobile parts manufacturing legacies, just like dozens of other neighboring communities.