Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Benton Harbor park controversy draws national attention; city commission faces hard choice

by: Eartha Jane Melzer

Monday (06/09) Michigan Messenger

A controversial plan to develop Benton Harbor's waterfront park as part of an elite golf course could be in trouble. Critics say it's being pushed by "predatory" developers, won't help the impoverished small town and might hurt low-income and minority residents. The city commission meets Monday to consider the proposal.

The plan, called Harbor Shores, is backed by the locally-based Whirlpool Corporation. The governor's office has offered total support (and $120 million in economic incentives) and the project has also benefited from the federal New Markets Tax Credit program. The 530-acre project would include 860 residential units, a 350-room hotel conference center, 27,000 square feet of commercial and retail space and an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course.

Billed by the state government as a public-spirited, grassroots plan for community redevelopment, the project was blocked by the National Park Service (NPS) late last year for failing to involve the local community in decision-making and offering inadequate parcels in trade for the waterfront.

Developers resubmitted the plan, and the NPS-mandated public hearing and comment period, which concluded last month, revealed deep concerns about the plan and its purported benefits to the town. Over 300 written comments were submitted to the city.

Jean Klock Park is the only Lake Michigan waterfront owned by an African-American community and the proposed golf development has emerged as a national environmental justice story with pieces in The Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune. Last month, Michigan Messenger revealed that two top backers of the project, Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and Whirlpool CEO Jeff Fettig, live just down the street from the planned cour

The golf project is dependent on public financing and therefore requires the approval of local government. It is not certain the project will receive that approval. In the time since the proposal was originally submitted through the city of Benton Harbor, the city commission itself has changed, in large part due to concerns over Harbor Shores. Three new commissioners have replaced some who supported Harbor Shores in the last go-round, and recall efforts have emerged against three others. The project must get five of the nine commission votes to advance to the required state and federal review. There is also a new city manager since the project last passed through city government.

The changing attitudes of city government can be seen in a special strategy and goals workshop held by the city last month.

Staff, city commissioners and citizens emerged from facilitated workshop discussions with a statement that read:

"We will reevaluate the Harbor Shores agreement concerning community benefits."

Commissioner Juanita Henry, who is the chair of the Public Safety, Public Works, Parks and Recreation committee, said, "I took that to mean we are going to reevaluate the whole project … not just the community benefits package."

Henry said the workshop pulled the city together. She called it a "great process.

"We got to tell the truth to each other, set a timeline and be transparent."

Beyond just reevaluating Harbor Shores, Henry said, that group determined that the city needs to develop a master plan.

"We have put the [development] cart before the horse," she said.

"We are trying to slow it down and put everything we would like to see for the next five, 10, 20 years in a plan and work the plan. In the past, we have just been going helter-skelter as Cornerstone [the local economic development agency and a partner in the Harbor Shores project] has come and insisted that we rubber-stamp things. That will stop because we will have a plan."

Mayor Wilce Cooke told Michigan Messenger that he needs to see more data to show the economic viability of Harbor Shores before he can consider approving the plan.

Cooke said that he feels he must leave no stone unturned in researching this project because Benton Harbor residents are struggling with severe economic problems and past developers have taken tax breaks and left the community, never fulfilling their obligations. In some cases, the cash-strapped city has not been able to hold them responsible.

If the city approves the plan to lease the public park to Harbor Shores, the proposal will go to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for review, and if approved, it will be sent on to the NPS for reconsideration.

Opponents of the plan have pointed out that in the last application to the NPS, the state failed to correct the claim that the conversion will not disproportionately affect the city's low-income and minority communities. They say that the park conversion will mean less recreational space for local residents.

DNR spokeswoman Mary Detloff said that back in 2006 the agency determined there would be not disporportionate affect on these communities (Benton Harbor is more than 90 percent African-American) because developers planned to build a new access road to the Lake Michigan beachfront, which would make it easier for area residents to access the water.

In appeals to the DNR, area citizens have asked that this be re-examined. A Clinton-era executive order requires stricter environmental review of projects that have a disproportionate effect on low-income and minority communities.

"This isn't really a project that aims to seriously take a bite out of the malaise in southwest Michigan," said attorney Terry Lodge who has been consulting with Harbor Shores opponents.

"Developers have taken a predatory approach to this small impoverished town," Lodge said.

If the state passes the proposal through to the NPS without carefully examining it, he said, it may have trouble defending its actions when challenged in court.

Wendy Dant Chesser, spokeswoman for Harbor Shores, said that even if the golf course is not built, the expansive project will have benefited Benton Harbor by clearing tons of debris from other parcels slated for development.