Sunday, January 10, 2010

Current Status of Damage Done by Whirlpool in Benton Harbor

“It bothers me that these allegations are out there,“ he said, “somebody maybe ought to be doing a criminal check and either exonerate or bring criminal charges.”

Controversial golf development gets new tax credits as state board probes failed promises
Harbor Shores awarded $12.6 million in brownfield redevelopment money

By Eartha Jane Melzer 12/21/09

The private golf-centered luxury housing development that took over Benton Harbor’s public lakefront as part of an economic development scheme endorsed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm received $12.6 million in new tax credits last week, even though a state board has begun pursuing the company for failed commitments.

Locals say that Jean Klock park is being damaged by Harbor Shores which just received $12.6 in brownfield redevelopment money (photo courtesy

The Harbor Shores development is backed by the appliance giant Whirlpool, which maintains its corporate headquarters in Benton Harbor despite having moved most of its manufacturing jobs elsewhere, leaving the city one of the poorest in the state.

Much of the formerly industrial land slated for development in the project is polluted with chemicals and heavy metals. Whirlpool has donated some parcels to the project.

In the latest round of public financing for the project, announced by the governor last week, the state agreed to subsidize the costs of building high end second homes and condos and a portion of a trail that is to link the homes to the golf course and other attractions.

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation approved $12.6 million in brownfield redevelopment tax credits and stated that the project is expected to generate $123 million in investment and create 45 jobs.

Brownfield credits are given to businesses who take a contaminated parcel of land, clean it up and make it usable again.

But some locals — who have been fighting the development though lawsuits still pending in state and federal court — say that the project is not worthy of public support and should not be seen as environmentally positive.

They accuse developers and public officials of side-stepping rules intended to protect natural resources and they warn that by building a golf course on top of a delicate lakeside sand dune, new areas of contamination are growing in what was once a pristine public park.

Three of the holes in the Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course that is the centerpiece of the planned development have been built in the center of Jean Klock Park, which was donated to the residents of Benton Harbor in 1917.

Developers said that the breathtaking dune views of Lake Michigan were needed to ensure a commercially viable project, and negotiated a long term lease with the city of Benton Harbor.

The conversion of the park required approval from the state because the state has funded park improvement grants. In October 2006, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Board voted 3-1 to approve a conversion plan that offered new parkland and a trail system in exchange for the dune parkland.

Developers have not delivered on promises

Now the board is asking whether the developers have held up their end of the bargain.

Excavation, tree removal and new parking lots have transformed part of Jean Klock Park into a private golf course, but the trails and new parks promised in exchange have not materialized.

In presentations to the Natural Resources Trust Fund Board locals have also complained that some areas of the park that were supposed to remain public are now difficult or even dangerous to access, and they’ve warned that chemical run-off from the golf course is contaminating the park as it flows into drainage ditches that were not shown in plans presented to the public.

In October, the Trust Fund Board established a working group to investigate the ways in which the Harbor Shores project has diverged from the plan approved by the board.

At the Dec. 2 meeting of the board, commissioner and board chair Lana Pollack expressed frustration over Harbor Shores’ assertion that the park conversion plan approved by the board was a concept rather than a commitment.

“When we approve a project we are approving a project not a concept. It is disturbing to see that used as a justification for going outside the bounds of what was approved.”

Pollack acknowledged that the patchwork of former industrial parcels traded for the park contain hazardous levels of contaminants.

“We have extreme concerns about the use of mitigation parcels because they are part 201 facilities, a toxic stew. They have to be dealt with in a way that is respectful of today’s and tomorrow’s children.”

Commissioners seek possible legal investigation

After listening to Benton Harbor resident Nicole Moon give a slide show and a litany of the shortcomings of the Harbor Shore project at the Trust Fund Board’s December meeting, commissioner Bob Garner suggested that it may be appropriate for the attorney general to examine Harbor Shores practices.

“What is coming up here are matters that strongly suggest that mitigation needs to take place, and allegations … that criminal activity has taken place,” Garner said.

“At some point we might ask the attorney general to step in and try to set the law straight on that.”

Garner said that he was not sure whether the trust fund board had authority to refer matters to the attorney general, but he said he was disturbed by questionable practices associated with the Harbor Shores development.

“It bothers me that these allegations are out there,“ he said, “somebody maybe ought to be doing a criminal check and either exonerate or bring criminal charges.”

Commissioner Dennis Muchmore also encouraged Moon to bring the Harbor Shores issues to the attorney general.