By JONATHAN MAHLER
Published: December 15, 2011
On the northern edge of Benton Harbor, just beyond the grim grid of housing projects, shuttered storefronts, boarded-up homes and junk-laden yards that dominate much of the town, sits an emerald oasis known as Harbor Shores. As the name suggests, Harbor Shores is a resort development. At its heart is a pristine Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course that meanders along a river and creek; through woods and wetlands; and, most striking, across tall, white sand dunes overlooking Lake Michigan.
The golf course was built largely on fallow, polluted land that was once crowded with factories: holes No. 4 and No. 5 were the slag pit for a company that made automobile brakes. Holes No. 14 and 15 were a former Superfund site once occupied by a company that used radium and mercury to manufacture components for fighter planes.
Metaphorically speaking, Harbor Shores is supposed to have a similarly salutary effect on the poor, overwhelmingly black town that surrounds it. No mere resort, it was envisioned by its developers as a “single, signature project to drive economic development and bring social change to Benton Harbor,” in the words of one promotional video.
In late August, I played the course with a foursome of hackers that included Marcus Robinson, who helped lead the effort to build the resort. A heavy African-American man, Robinson wore khaki shorts, an orange Harbor Shores golf shirt and matching Harbor Shores straw hat. It was a sticky day, and he guzzled Gatorade as he liberated large chunks of turf that on more than one occasion outflew his ball. “It’s such a beautiful property,” he said as he bent over to fill a large divot with grass seed. “It’s a shame to duff it up.”
Robinson is president of the Consortium for Community Development. The consortium is one of several local nonprofits partly financed by the Whirlpool Corporation, which is based in Benton Harbor, to help encourage the redevelopment of the town. He took up golf at the urging of his girlfriend two years ago, just after construction began on Harbor Shores. “She was like, ‘You don’t want to be out here on opening day and have the ball go two inches in front of you at the first tee,’ ” he told me. “Of course, that’s exactly what happened. On my first drive, the ball didn’t even go out of the tee box.”
Robinson, who is 53, went to graduate school for hypnotherapy, the art of inducing trances to change behavioral patterns, before becoming a corporate consultant in Rochester, N.Y. He was brought to Benton Harbor by Whirlpool as a “diversity consultant” in early 2001. His assignment was to work with community leaders, businesspeople and other local residents to come up with ways to address some of the ever-worsening problems — poverty, violence, white flight, racial strife — that had been plaguing the city for years and were making it increasingly difficult for Whirlpool to attract executive talent to the area. The discussions helped birth Harbor Shores, a notion that had been kicking around a long while.
Given Benton Harbor’s unfavorable history and demographics, no private developer would likely be willing to take on such an ambitious project there. But there was another way: Robinson’s group, along with other nonprofits supported by Whirlpool, could secure enough federal and state grant money to help remediate the land, build the golf course and at least get Harbor Shores off the ground. The project’s complicated financing deal closed in May 2008, right around the time that the national real-estate market crashed.
On the Thursday morning that we played Harbor Shores, the course looked virtually empty. The blueprints call for the 530-acre resort to include high-end hotels and shops and quaint marinas, but as of now it’s basically just a golf course. The first of hundreds of planned houses are going up on cul de sacs with names like Golden Bear Court...