Benton Harbor, Joe Harris — May 28, 2011 at 10:17 am

Cutting out the “bad part” of the plum – the exploitation of Benton Harbor


When I think of Benton Harbor these days, I think of a ripe, juicy plum, hanging in the sunshine, ready to be plucked off the tree. But Benton Harbor is a plum with a “bad spot” in the minds of some. A bit of rotten fruit that needs to be cut off and discarded. Once that’s done, those that would enjoy the sweetness of that plum can do so unencumbered by anything unpleasant.

In this analogy, of course, the plum pickers are the developers and corporate interests in Benton Harbor and the “bad spots” are the parts of town they don’t like. The run-down neighborhoods. The low-rent hotels. The poor people. The unspoiled, unexploited natural areas.

Benton Harbor is a juicy plum, indeed, though. It sits on a prime piece of Michigan real estate where a large river empties into the beautiful Lake Michigan. Lots of undeveloped land and brownfield parcels, waiting to be exploited by developers and builders. If only it weren’t for those pesky bad spots, Benton Harbor would be their dream city.

But, the bad spots on the Benton Harbor plum present these groups with some opportunities, too. The presence of the bad spots helps lower the worth of this prime real estate. In fact, if you could cut out the current inhabitants and owners of the bad spots, you could have yourself some damn fine land to develop for nickels on the dollar.

And that’s exactly what is happening by degrees in Benton Harbor.

About ten years ago, the Cornerstone Alliance was born, a partnership of banks, developers and area businesses, assembled together to turn Benton Harbor and the surrounding area into a business-owners paradise. From their webpage:

Cornerstone Alliance is a 501(c)(3) investor driven economic development organization committed to improving the economic wealth of our community. The mission of Cornerstone Alliance is to generate economic growth and promote civic development in Michigan’s Great Southwest. All funding to Cornerstone Alliance is voluntary. We rely on generous donations from businesses, individuals, and units of government to achieve the goals set forth in our Strategic Plan. Traditionally, funding from the private sector constitutes approximately 92% of our overall funding base, with Whirlpool Foundation matching-within reason-whatever is raised by these community donations.

It’s an interesting choice of wording for what appears to be more or less a mission statement: “improving the economic wealth of our community”. For the half of Benton Harbor residents living below the poverty line, “economic wealth” is a distant goal. Many of them, I’m sure would be happy to find respite from “economic catastrophe”. But, in general, the Cornerstone Alliance and its affiliate, the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce, are focused on business and real estate development. This becomes very clear when you look at their Boards of Directors. They are Who’s Who lists of area bankers, developers and business executives.

Not everyone sees the Cornerstone Alliance so favorably. In a recent article, the group was described in other terms:

To keep a clean public image, Whirlpool funds and largely controls a nonprofit in Benton Harbor called the Cornerstone Alliance, which has a revolving door with Whirlpool and the Whirlpool Foundation for its staff members and employees.

Cornerstone has long served the interests of Whirlpool in Benton Harbor, creating a façade through which the company can pass off its actions as being in the interests of “the community.”

“They’re an arm of Whirlpool,” says Carol Drake of Friends of Jean Klock Park.

Carol has been fighting for the preservation of the historic park against a consortium of developers led by Whirlpool. Her organization has tracked the evolution of developers’ plans to seize the public park, which she says have been in the works for decades.

Their current project is called Harbor Shores, a $500 million golf resort to include luxury homes, a water park, high-end condominiums and other similar upscale amenities.

Both Whirlpool and Cornerstone are partners in this development, which will span Benton Harbor’s public beach. Jean Klock Park was deeded to the people of Benton Harbor almost 100 years ago, but the central area of it was turned over to developers in 2008.

This characterization of the Cornerstone Alliance as an arm of Whirlpool appears to be accurate. Go back and look at the description of the Cornerstone Alliance and read the last sentence:

Traditionally, funding from the private sector constitutes approximately 92% of our overall funding base, with Whirlpool Foundation matching-within reason-whatever is raised by these community donations.

Whirlpool is all but running this show.

The cutting away of the bad parts of Benton Harbor continues, in large part thanks to Cornerstone. The development of part of Jean Klock Park into three holes of a luxury golf course involved cutting down a forest and decimating the dune (rather shocking photos and more information on that HERE.) Another bad part of the juicy plum — an undeveloped and unexploited natural area — cut away and discarded.

Recently, a low-rent hotel was condemned, its residents given 30 days to vacate. No surprise here: the hotel was directly across the street from where the new Whirlpool headquarters are being built.

This month’s issue of the “Cornerstone Chamber Insider” highlights a new Cornerstone project called “75 Viewpoints”. The project is designed, in part, to identify the bad parts of the Benton Harbor plum.

Click image to enlarge

The Good, Bad, & Ugly . . .

If you have a camera, an opinion, and a little free time, you can play a critical role as a catalyst for change right here in Michigan’s Great Southwest. Cornerstone Alliance has launched “75 Viewpoints,” a dynamic project designed to point up the good, bad and ugly of our area as we work to maximize the first impressions of golf fans from around the world who will be visiting the 2012 Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid at the Golf Club at Harbor Shores. Volunteers are being asked to take 10 to 25 photos of things in the area that drive you crazy and need to be fixed…and another 10 to 25 photos of things around town that they love and would like to see more of. It’s actually a project that your entire family can take part in. So, what are the amenities that we love, and the eyesores that need to be remedied or eliminated? If you would like to be one of the 75 people offering their viewpoints, please fill out the form that accompanied this newsletter, or contact Jamie at 269-757-0207.

See that? It can be a family affair. Take the kids out and shoot some photos of the run-down sections of Benton Harbor. Make a photo collection of all the undesirable parts to display to the public, a photo album of shame, so to speak.

All told, they will end up with over 1,000 pictures of the bad parts of the Benton Harbor plum. And, then, presumably, having identified their targets, they will continue the cutting out of the parts that need to be “eliminated”.

Benton Harbor’s Emergency Financial Manager Joseph L. Harris appears to be helping the effort to transfer the resources of the city to the private sector. His first move, after essentially firing the City Commission recently, was to replace people on both the Planning Commission and on the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority with his own hand-picked members. These two groups are the ones with the most to say in how development moves forward and how real estate resources are allocated in Benton Harbor.

Harris can do these things in large part thanks to sweeping new powers granted him by the recently-passed Public Act 4 — the Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) law. The legislation for this law was introduced by Al Pscholka, who was once an aide to Fred Upton whose family started Whirlpool. Pscholka, now a state representative, is also a past vice-president of the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce and a former board member of the Cornerstone Alliance.

The forces aligned against the non-business “bad part” of Benton Harbor are well-coordinated. Legislators. Powerful corporations. Banks. Developers. An EFM running the government who reports only to our businessman governor. The delicious, sun-warmed plum of Benton Harbor is almost ready to be picked. All that’s left to do is cut out the bad part.

Bring the kids.