Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Benton Harbor – A City Stolen from its Community?

Benton Harbour was one of the first cities in Michigan to become subject to Public Act number 4 which allows the state to take over the running of municipalities or school districts that they deem to be in financial distress. This greatly disputed Act allows a state appointed manager to effectively remove all power from the democratically elected city council. This raises the question: who is best suited to run a city? The people who live and work there or an outsider?
Big business – help or hindrance?
Whirlpool was born in Benton Harbor around 100 years ago as The Upton Machine Company and has operated here on some level ever since. Most of the manufacturing was done here until the 1980’s when factories began to close as cost cutting exercises. Whirlpool is now building a new campus in the city, with more than 20 million dollars in tax credits to help it along, but the jobs created by this are unlikely to help the unemployment problem in Benton Harbour, existing staff will be, relocated instead. It is easy to see why many people see Whirlpool and other large companies as simply using their bargaining power to get access to state funding giving them cheap new developments.
Attracting industry – the first step in regeneration?
Big businesses are able to get a lot of resources from the state if they know where to look; Renaissance zones are areas in Michigan targeted for regeneration and Benton harbor is home to two of them. By building or locating themselves in these areas businesses and residents can be exempt from taxes for up to ten years, which for big companies can make a lot more cash than investing in unit trusts or other classic money making opportunities. The theory is that once some businesses come, others will follow and the rest of the problems in the area will disappear.
Harbor Shores – creating affordable housing?
In one word – no. This development with its golf course and plans for high end hotels and shops was built with state and government funding by non profit companies and the backing of Whirlpool; a great place to house their new campus based employees? It is unlikely that the majority of Harbor Shores residents will be moving there; the new builds sell for up to half a million dollars where the average house price in the rest of the city hovers around $70,000
The goal statement on the Benton Harbor city website seems to have been forgotten --
‘Our goals and objectives are to continue to develop viable neighbourhoods, including decent and safe housing, for the betterment of a more suitable living environment, eliminate slums and blight, and to expand economic opportunities for the residents of Benton Harbour.’ --
Democracy – use it or lose it?
The effective removal of the elected officials of Benton Harbor may appear to be the installation of a fascist regime to many, but Joseph Harris, the emergency manager. is of the opinion it is the best way for him to help the city - “Here, I don’t have to worry about whether the politicians or union leaders like what I’m doing. I have to worry about whether it’s the right thing to do.” (interview with the New York Times in Dec 2011) However, his opinion of what is the best thing to do seems a little off target; tying water and refuse collection rates together may be aimed at helping encourage people pay their water rates for fear of getting cut off, but doesn’t help them pay the bills.
Surely taking away the voting rights of people already disenchanted with government simply makes them feel even less in control of their own lives? Especially as much of the cities money problems were caused by mismanagement by the previous elected officials , who were aiding Whirlpool and law suits brought by whistleblowers, mistakes which are being paid for by residents now.
Regeneration of the wrong kind
The Arts District in Benton Harbor is indeed seeing a growth in business, but its customers are rarely amongst the 90% black population of the city, who are also fairly unlikely to want to spend their hard earned cash on a round of golf, even if they qualify for the discount to residents who have paid their taxes. It seems that the majority of residents have not been consulted or catered for in the measures put in place to ‘save’ their city, the implication is that Benton Harbor residents are not capable of turning the fortunes of their city around and must rely on outside help to do it for them whilst they sit quietly by and do nothing.
Author: anonymous.

I, Rev. Edward Pinkney, am dedicated to the power of people to control their own lives and you should be also.