You will see proof of how public opinion was and is controlled in Berrien County.
|Cheri Miller, Benton Harbor Business|
Ralph Heibutzki 12.JUN.08
In consent calendar item #1, the City approved, 7-1, a revised park maintenance and lease agreement, and Jean Klock Park conversion and mitigation proposal for submittal to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and National Park Service (NPS).
Residents voiced differing degrees of frustration with the commission's decision –
Monday's vote marked the second favorable decision on the project. Cooke joined Mayor Pro Tem Ralph Crenshaw and Commissioners Rahim Abdullah, James Hightower, Ricky Hill, Eddie Marshall, and David Shaw in supporting the agreement. Commissioner Juanita Henry cast the dissenting vote, and Commissioner Bryan Joseph was absent. Attorney Donald Schmidt -- who helped the negotiate the new agreement -- began by explaining how staff answered more than 300 comments it received during a 45-day public comment period. The centerpiece of the $500 million project focuses on using 22 of Jean Klock Park's 73 acres for three holes of a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course. The NPS – which has the final say – rejected the project last fall, after it deemed the public comment period insufficient. The agency also ruled that the parcels offered to make up for the land being lost were an unfair trade.
Not every question earned a response – such as to those who wrote, “good project,” or the opposite, Schmidt said. Also, several questions that tackled similar subjects were combined to cover the most ground, he added.
Schmidt estimated the city received 400 comments that ran 7 to 1 in favor of the project, which were condensed to 104 responses. Those responses now go back to the DNR and NPS, not to the individual commentators, he added.
Schmidt said only minor wording changes were made to the overall proposal, so the conversion, mitigation and trailways areas remain the same. The biggest changes came in the lease agreement that governs Harbor Shores' use of Jean Klock Park, he said.
Schmidt cited 16 key changes in the lease agreement. For example, the commission could now appoint three members to a Golf Oversight Board to set rates, and the winter use of the golf course, Schmidt said. Both powers were only advisory under the previous agreement.
Harbor Shores must restore the property to its original condition, and both sides may terminate the lease, if the other breaches it, Schmidt said. Additional changes came from the Attorney General's Office, which wanted it clear that Harbor Shores cannot recoup its $18 million investment through the golf course fees, he added.
Harbor Shores also accepted a 1-year warranty for any improvements it makes on the park, the trailways, and mitigation parcels, Schmidt said. “The changes really give the city more control over the park – it's a better agreement for the city,” he said.
Henry commended Schmidt and City Manager Richard Marsh Jr. for their negotiating efforts, but stopped short of a total endorsement, as well. “If it wasn't for the National Park Service denying it in the first place, it (control) would all have been given away,” Henry said. “At one time, we had no out of this at all.”
Henry still considered the process flawed, saying that residents deserved another week to review a report that wasn't finalized until last Friday. “I can say -- for a fact -- some of my questions have not been answered yet, and I'm a commissioner,” Henry said.
Henry would have liked to have seen the commission go over the responses before taking up the agreement. “We've voted on a lot of things that have not benefited city government -- as well as citizens in this project -- and we all know it,” Henry said. “Some of us don't want us to say that, but it's a fact.”
Cooke felt comfortable with the changes, but asked if another week will unduly delay the project. Marsh responded the city went the extra mile by extending the comment period for 14 days, and offering to deliver copies of documents to anyone who couldn't visit City Hall, the police station or the Benton Harbor Library to review them.
The city's responses would not be considered part of the process, but would be made public, too, Marsh said. “Again, we went beyond what the minimum requirements were, and we think we complied,” he said.
Other commissioners felt an additional week would serve no purpose, such as Marshall, who thanked the Friends of Jean Klock Park for its aggressive scrutiny. “This commissioner is grateful for the things that you have done,” Marshall said. “We have done everything feasible and possible to make this thing work. At this point, I think it's time to move forward.”
Residents voiced differing degrees of frustration with the commission's decision – including a meeting structure that did not allow any comments until after the vote. “We should have a chance to say something before you pass anything that would give something of ours away,” James Duncan, resident of Benton Harbor for 52 years, said. “Until I know that you're going to listen to the citizens in this town, I won't feel good about anyone up here.”
Cherie Miller, CEO and President of New Products Corporation located in the City of Benton Harbor for 86 years, with approximately 25 acres east of Eight Street addressed the commission regarding certain safety problems. She gave them a copy of a four-page letter she sent to the National Park Service requesting to deny the grant.
The cover letter attached to her letter to the NPA was to “request your help in resolving the outstanding problems regarding New Products Corporation and the mitigation plan proposal. Unsafe design features in the plan impact the company, its employees, and the citizens of Benton Harbor. The conflicts between pedestrian trails and golf cart paths colliding with vehicular and truck traffic exist, and are not addressed. No attempt to contact me or improve the public safety has been made. The concerns addressed are legitimate and real. Please consider my requests and postpone your decision until all the citizens concerns have been addressed through specific plan changes.”
Nicole Moon,of Benton Harbor, took issue with past characterizations of the opposition. “I'd like to point out that Harbor Shores are all outsiders – they're not from here, they're not from the city of Benton Harbor,” Moon said.
Bill Cheatham suggested the commission look into tax free municipal bonds to generate money for worthier projects – such as infrastructure improvements. “You cannot afford to continue to give away your taxes, and not doing anything for the city.” he said.
"Just leave the beach alone. I really do not see a great deal for our community. Why couldn't we think of a project that serves everyone, not just a certain segment of people, like an amusement park. That would draw more people and also stimulate our economy than a golf course. Bring a Six Flags or Cedar Point here. An amusement park would afford us more entertainment -- especially for our youth and bring our city money and it would be something we can afford. Plus, it could help build entrepreneurs from our citizens. The citizens could create businesses that could hire our own people. The only businesses we see growing from this development are outside companies coming in making money. Just leave our beach alone." stated Cheatham.
Marsh acknowledged that mistakes have been made, some resulting from inexperience. “Honestly, what I would have done at the beginning of this process – I would have had the citizens at the table in the planning (stages),” he said, after the meeting.