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Poorest city in Michigan hosts Senior PGA Championship

The Senior PGA Championship is underway today in Benton Harbor.

The city is home to the Whirlpool Corporation, the largest appliance manufacturer in the world; and it's also the poorest city in Michigan. In 2010 the average household in Benton Harbor earned just $17,000 a year.

Whirlpool's plan to turn Benton Harbor into a tourist destination

Recently, a steady stream of tour busses and a fleet of silver Mercedes with the PGA logo cruised through town.

At times you could see people inside the cars point at boarded up buildings as they drove by.

The Harbor Shores golf course sits in sharp contrast to the city’s poverty. But near the golf course there are plans for condos, two luxury hotels (to be completed by 2014), and a marina.

Whirlpool executives came up with this concept in the 1980s. They wanted to turn more than three million square feet of old manufacturing space near the Lake Michigan shore into a destination for golfers.

Retired Whirlpool Chairman and CEO David Whitwam told the Herald-Palladiumthat former Whirlpool Chairman Jack Sparks was the "father of Harbor Shores." Sparks died in the mid-90s.

"Jack had a conversation with us in 1986, and he engaged us in how Whirlpool could find an appropriate use for some land to further economic development for the benefit of all the communities."

A time to celebrate…

The $500 million project became a reality despite the recession, protests, and a number of legal challenges. So this week the backers are celebrating.

They enjoyed complimentary glasses of wine and savory hors d’eouvers at an invitation only reception earlier this week.

“This is absolutely fantastic,” Benton Harbor’s Mayor James Hightower said.

“I remember riding through this site when I was a little kid on a bicycle going to Jean Klock Park and it was all factories. Over the years they shut down. It became a dilapidated just a total eyesore; rusty buildings. And now to see it like it is today… its transformation.”

The Harbor Shores golf course was partially built on land that required a major cleanup. More than a dozen types of contaminants were removed from the soil; including arsenic, PCBs and asbestos.

"If you were here 10 or 15 years ago this was an eyesore. No, it was an embarrassment,” Congressman Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) said. Upton’s grandfather co-founded Whirlpool Corporation.

“This is a proud community, it’s really proud this weekend because no river can divide us. We are all in the same boat and there are no leaks,” Upton said.

The St. Joseph River divides Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. The two communities look worlds apart– St. Joe with its quaint shops and well manicured lawns. The city is more than 90-percent white and the average household income there is close to $50,000 a year; more than twice that in Benton Harbor.

Almost everyone agrees that the area looks a lot better. And most people are happy the proceeds from the non-profit development are reinvested into programs for kids here.

…And a time to protest

People here either support Whirlpool, because of the economic investment it brings, or they're against Whirlpool – a successful company they say is taking advantage of a city that’s desperate for cash and jobs.

“I would like to see Whirlpool pack up and leave here,” longtime activist Reverend Edward Pinkney said Wednesday. He’s wearing his signature T-shirt. It reads “Whirlpool commits crimes against humanity”.

“Whirlpool has outsourced jobs and closed factories and that’s a major crime,” Pinkney said.

But Whirlpool says it has 4,000 employees in the community; more than at any other time.

Pinkney says there’s no way a golf course and luxury housing development can make up for the manufacturing jobs Whirlpool moved overseas. And other protestors say they’re frustrated they don’t qualify for the mostly white collar jobs.

Pinkney is leading silent marches to protest Harbor Shores, Whirlpool and the PGA every day this week.

He’s outspoken and controversial even among Benton Harbor residents. One resident rolled his eyes and laughed at the passing procession. He said he can’t talk for the record because he too is a preacher and he won’t talk bad about Pinkney in public.

At Benton Harbor’s City Commission meeting the week of the golf tournament Pinkney partially blamed preachers.  

“We can’t get tricked like they have been tricking us. They’ve been doing the same thing," said Pinkney. "The same thing. They send these black preachers in to neutralize you. That’s what they do. They’re all ‘well, the PGA is good. Your going to get the taxes.’ From what?”

Pinkney said every citizen in Benton Harbor should be protesting. But Pinkney’s marches haven’t attracted anywhere near the number of people who came last year to protest the state takeoverof the practically bankrupt city government.

“I mean it’s their right to protest but the question is – is it right? For this community at this time?” Mayor James Hightower proposed. “When you’re trying to leverage businesses, you’re trying to leverage job creation. I think anything negative is really a slap in the face for any unemployed person in Benton Harbor.”

Harbor Shores “a done deal” - time to go with the flow

Benton Harbor City Commissioner Dennis Knowles was also against developing the golf course. Part of it sits in the city ward he represents. But he says protesting the Senior PGA event won't change anything.

"The transition has occurred. It’s a done deal. Now we got to go with the flow of finding opportunities for the people – if the people chose,” Knowles said. Knowles took a part in the protests against Michigan's emergency manager law and Governor Rick Snyder last spring. But not this year. 

Developers said in 2007 the project would create up to 700 permanent jobs. So far it’s created a little more than 100 permanent jobs and hundreds of temporary jobs.

The development isn’t finished yet.

“I don't have a problem with it because everything was done the right way,” Benton Harbor resident Michael Williams said. “Done the right way meaning (Whirlpool) came, they asked, and they received it.”

Williams isn’t happy city leaders at the time accepted a deal to lease more than 20 acres of beachfront city parkland for $30,000 a year for 100 years.

“Now we're stuck with what we got and we just have to make the best of it,” another resident Donna Roseman said. Knowles, Roseman and Williams said they tried to inform residents back then about the Harbor Shores plan. Now their informal ‘Better Benton Harbor Coalition’ is working to connect people with opportunities from the event, they said.  

Measuring the economic impact

Marnina Miller was guarding a row of security radios in a temporary trailer at the new Harbor Shores golf course when we spoke with her. She’s one of more than 260 temporary workers at the Senior PGA Championship.

She’s spent all of her 22 years in Benton Harbor.

“I can’t compare it to anything else,” Miller said of the job and the event. “It’s a lot more responsibility. There’s a lot of important people around constantly.”

The temporary jobs are for 4 to 6 weeks. They pay about $8-$12 per hour. There are some workers who will likely be hired to continue working with the PGA.

Miller just got her 2-year associates degree and plans to move to Texas to get her bachelor’s degree. She says she’ll use the money she makes here to buy books in the fall. "It's a good opportunity for me," Miller said of the temporary job. 

Vice President of the Consortium for Community Development Herb Caldwell says 27 people earned a forklift certification through their temporary jobs and at least one person already got a job because of that certification.

“I can only believe without even hard data but lots of anecdotal and gut feeling that it’s going to be good for all us little businesses around here,” co-owner of Benton Harbor brewery, The Livery, Leslie Pickell said. She said business was three times what it normally is earlier this week.

The PGA returns to Benton Harbor in 2014

The 73rd Senior PGA Championship director Jeff Hintz says protests at national sporting events are not uncommon.

But he says pro golfers are talking about the unique design of the Jack Nicklaus signature course. He says tourist will be attracted to this course.

“Jack Nicklaus is really the best golfer in the history of the game. And anytime you have Jack Nicklaus the brand tied to anything that he does – especially a golf course – people want to play it,” Hintz said.

Hintz moved to Berrien County a year and a half ago to prepare for the tournament. He said the location is unique for the event because there's only about 20,000 people in the combined cities of St. Joseph, Benton Harbor. Normally it's in communities with around 800,000 people or more. 

Ticket sales are good, the PGA said, although they will not disclose how many tickets have sold. Hospitality suites that run between $500-$84,000 sold out; more were added before the event. 

President of Cornerstone Alliance Wendy Dant Chesser said she’s had about a dozen site consultants in town for tours this week; many more than normal. Site selectors help companies find the best locations for their businesses.

“We believe and I very personally and strongly feel there are more positives about this project than anything that can be potentially misconstrued as a negative,” Chesser said.

As a Benton Harbor city resident, Marnina Miller said she hope s some of those businesses will invest in the city  “not just the outskirts”. 

“I think if people start coming back and they start investing saying ‘Oh wow, Benton Harbor is a beautiful place and I want to come stay here. I want to bring my family. I want to be a taxpayer. I want to invest in the school district.’ I think people will see the PGA as a success – if they do all those things,” said Miller.

The Senior PGA Championship and thousands of tourists pack up Sunday. But as development continues here the event will return to Benton Harbor in 2014.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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