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Jeff Noel is president of the Whirlpool Foundation, one of three non-profit groups behind Benton Harbor's attempted revival. Noel points to sister city St. Joseph, the affluent suburb to Benton Harbor's urban core. When downtown storefronts in St. Joseph were one-third empty not that many years ago, Noel says, the community cobbled together a low-interest loan program to attract retailers. "Fifteen million dollars later, there's a compass fountain that shoots water in the Curious Kids Museum, a carousel, and all the storefronts are full," Noel says.
Harbor Shores is a marvel in environmental cleanup. The 1st hole was built on the site of a steel mill that closed in the '80s. The 3rd, 4th and 5th holes are on a section of a slag pit used by a brake company. The 14th hole was home to a metal-furniture maker during World War I and became a place where aircraft parts were made, some with radium and mercury, and landed on the government's Superfund toxic waste sites list in the mid-'90s. The 15th hole was a city landfill, while the 16th was an industrial dumping ground.
Meanwhile, the concept for the golf course and housing community in a bankrupt city—Benton Harbor is under the control of an emergency manager, a move made by the state of Michigan after city officials ran up a debt of nearly $5 million—was put on hold for a year to address the city's lack of affordable housing. Former president Jimmy Carter was persuaded to bring Habitat for Humanity to Benton Harbor. Habitat built 22 houses in a week, and since then, 600 homes have been built or renovated.
The progress has been remarkable, but as the Times pointed out, some residents fear redevelopment will lead to their being pushed out in an unofficial class war, or gentrification, as Occupy the PGA terms it on its website. The demonstrators were few in number and varied in their complaints.
"I know some people are frustrated," Noel says. "I can see why some have a sense of hopelessness. I'd hope that those who demonstrated have suggestions, and if they live here, make sure their sons and daughters are enrolled in the Boys and Girls Clubs we've created, come to the M-Tec school we built for job training or get into one of the Habitat homes. We're on a change curve."
The PGA of America bought in two years ago, when the association's CEO, Joe Steranka, learned of Whirlpool's commitment to the area.
"I said, This is like a commercial for We Are Golf," said Steranka, referring to a PGA-supported coalition to grow the game. "We have 530 acres that was transformed from a Superfund site into a five- to seven-hundred-million-dollar development that dramatically increased the tax base and created jobs. Just think, golf was the catalyst that turned this desolate area into an oasis of green space."
There is more to come. More rebuilding, more reviving, more hope and even more golf. And like it or not, the Senior PGA will return to Harbor Shores in 2014.