Greener Greens: How Benton Harbor went from a giant brownfield to lustrous, lakefront Nicklaus green

How Benton Harbor went from a giant brownfield to lustrous, lakefront Nicklaus green

By Lauri Harvey Keagle
Courtesy of Shore Magazine

When Joen Brambilla was growing up in St. Joseph, Benton Harbor was in vogue.

“Benton Harbor was the town where everyone came to go shopping,” Brambilla says. “They had all the big stores and two shopping malls. It was the place to go.”

She married and moved away and while she was gone, the city’s reputation went from fashionable to failure. In the mid-1980s, six manufacturing plants—including Whirlpool’s largest appliance manufacturing facility in the world—closed within an 18-month period. The plant closures meant the loss of more than 5,500 jobs and turned the city into a ghost town.

Brambilla returned to the area in 1995 and went to work for Cornerstone Alliance in downtown Benton Harbor. “I worked on Main Street and there were no cars there. I told my neighbor where I worked and he said, ‘You can’t go to work there.’”

The plant closures also left behind environmental ruin. A foundry, steel companies, an old city dump, appliance factories and an aircraft component manufacturing site contaminated with mercury and radium were among the remains on the 600 vacant acres bridging St. Joseph and Benton Harbor.

The pollution on the aircraft manufacturing site was so severe, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed it a Superfund site, defining it as one of the most polluted in the nation. “It was devastating,” Brambilla says. “It was a town you couldn’t even go into.”

But locals weren’t about to let it die.

In the late 1980s, community and business leaders commissioned a study on how to bring new jobs, housing and recreational opportunities to the area. The study recommended changes in downtown Benton Harbor first, followed by developing the 600 acres that once thrived as a manufacturing hub of the community to once again serve as the city’s economic engine.

The Whirlpool Foundation, Cornerstone Alliance and the Alliance for World-Class Communities worked together and formed Harbor Shores Community Redevelopment, a nonprofit entity charged with serving as master developer of the project.

The group had a vision, but needed a plan. Mark Hesemann, managing director of Harbor Shores, brought his Evergreen Development real estate company to the table and had the connections needed to get the project off the ground.

Hesemann spent seventeen years working for golf legend Jack Nicklaus’ Nicklaus Design, an international golf course design firm. If Hesemann could bring Nicklaus to Benton Harbor to build a golf course to serve as the center of the development, residential, retail and other recreational amenities could follow.

Leaders agreed and the plan was born: a 520-acre mixed use residential, retail and spa hotel development, spanning parts of Benton Harbor, St. Joseph and Benton Charter Township, aimed at bringing jobs and taxes back to Benton Harbor.

Partners have invested more than $70 million in the project to date and anticipate creating around 800 pre-construction jobs and 700 post-construction jobs. Officials say Harbor Shores is providing opportunities for developers to invest over $400 million in the community.

“This is the ultimate,” Hesemann says. “It’s really cool to have a project not focused on how much money am I going to make at the end of the year. It’s about changing lives.”


Before the plans in Benton Harbor could become a reality, the developers had to deal with the contaminated landscape.

“Jack Nicklaus had a vision,” says Bob McFeeter, director of development for the project. “He could see where these holes were going to go. We were confronted with piles of garbage and debris and couldn’t see it.”

Ron Eng, Harbor Shores’ director of marketing and sales, remembers taking people on tours explaining how the golf course would be developed. “In 2007, the weeds were as high as my Jeep,” Eng says. “We saw beer bottles, thousands of tires.”

The project removed over 117,000 tons of trash, solid waste and concrete from the site, including 20,000 tons of contaminated soils. That’s one football field stacked up 65 feet or the equivalent of a seven-story building. “Once you cleared away the trash, there was beautiful land underneath,” Hesemann says.

In constructing the golf course, engineers ensured there would be no run off to the natural water table or wetlands. Designers topped the land on the golf course with a foot of sand, McFeeter says, “for drainage and environmental reasons.”

“Soils are not consistent across the site,” he says. “There is peat, sand, foundry clay. We need to be able to irrigate and drain at the same rate to allow the turf to grow at the same rate.”

In order to minimize the runoff of fertilizer, the course captures the first inch of rain. “We constructed wetlands and the whole golf course drains into those to trap sediment and runoff,” McFeeter says. “It’s very cost effective. Fertilizer is so expensive, so you don’t want to use or waste too much anyway. Turf is one of the best filters of fertilizer. There is no runoff into the Paw Paw or Lake Michigan.”

The Superfund site was among the most challenging. “It was remediated by the EPA so the radioactivity was removed from the site,” McFeeter says. “When creating a golf course there, the EPA had restrictions. Now, it’s just gorgeous and it was built on top of a Superfund site.

The EPA is still monitoring the groundwater, McFeeter says, but there is no surface contact danger there. “The Superfund site is the only one that, to a normal person, strikes fear of hazards, but you really have to eat this stuff or ingest it to cause you any major concerns at all,” he says.

The success of the cleanup was measured by the nature that returned. Sandhill cranes came to the property for the first time in 2008.

By June 2009, rose-pink—a species native to the region—was growing on the property. Sandpipers were running across the greens and ducklings were crossing the ponds in the wetlands with their parents nearby. A deer emerged from the woods and swam across the Paw Paw River while a river otter swam near the shoreline.

“If you looked at this parcel four or five years ago, you’d think no one would want to invest here,” McFeeter says. “Now, you go out on the course and think, ‘I might like to live here.’”


The Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course is at the center of the Golf District, which includes custom homes ranging to $600,000. Road construction started in the Fairways development in the fall and is expected to be complete by Memorial Day.

Currently, the clubhouse for the golf course is housed in the old M-Tech building, but there are plans in the works for a 12,000-square-foot clubhouse that may accompany a lodging facility.

Nicklaus personally designed the golf course, with exceptional detail. He returned in June to work on the design of the three holes in Jean Klock Park and went back to check on the previous work on holes seven and eight.

He wasn’t satisfied with what he saw. Nicklaus told his personal shaper to change the holes, saying he would return in an hour. The work delayed a press conference by more than an hour and a half, but the holes were completed to his liking. “He’s so committed to designing the golf course with a completely hands-on approach,” Eng says.

The course opened with nine holes in July, taking reservations for play Friday through Sunday until 2 p.m. Some 2,500 golfers played the course before the end of the season.

Brambilla now serves as marketing and sales director for The Golf Club at Harbor Shores and says it is exciting to be a part of the revitalization of the once thriving community. “When I’m out on that golf course, I don’t even think of what it used to be,” she says. “People say all along they can’t believe they’re in Benton Harbor, Michigan.”

The course is the second public Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course in Michigan. The Jack Nicklaus Golf Academy at the club will be the first in the Midwest. The academy—one of ten in the nation—is scheduled to open this summer and offer one- to three-day instructional courses in golf.

The course really has three courses in one: a heavily treed, hilly course resembling a traditional Michigan course; a river course and a dunes course.

“Once you hit the dunes, you don’t know if you’re in Scotland or where you are,” says Ross Smith, director of golf for Harbor Shores. “You go from areas where the fairways are all fairly large. You run along some holes cut out of trees and some are along Lake Michigan. Some are along the Paw Paw River.

“I’ve got a lot of friends in Indiana and I think it’s going to be one of the premier golf course destinations in this area,” he says. “This is something you’re willing to drive three or four hours for, just to enjoy the experience.”

Eng says the course is playable for golfers of any level. “I think one thing that Nicklaus used to be criticized for in his early courses was that they were too challenging,” Eng says. “I think the new Jack Nicklaus, he’s really focused on making it playable for people of all skill levels.

“The greens are really challenging, but they’re fun,” he says. “It’s more visually intimidating than it really is and the golfer has the responsibility of playing the right tees. Someone of my skill level goes out and says, ‘Do I want to play the second to last or the very tips?’ I think that’s the thing Nicklaus has done, is he’s provided four sets of different tees and the hazards to go along with them.”

The back nine are expected to open this summer and officials hope to have 13,000 people play the course in the 2010 season.


The Harbor Shores development will have a total of 800 residential units of various types: condominiums, townhomes, custom-built single-family homes and cottages.

The challenge, in this economy, is getting people to buy them. “Sometimes the right things happen for the wrong reasons,” Hesemann says. “Had we come out when we wanted to initially, we would have hit at the worst time.”

The project was delayed about a year because of permitting issues. Had they not had the permitting problems, they would have begun pushing lot reservations just as the housing market tanked. “Now we’re seeing how home construction is starting to come around in the area and homes are selling,” he says. “In this business, the trick is to catch it on the uptick.”

Eng is charged with marketing the project. “No one needs a second home, they want a second home,” Eng says. “We try to get people really grounded in Southwest Michigan, what is there to do here, wineries, festivals, beaches, arts districts. Everything we do at Harbor Shores is trying to get people to understand the lifestyle aspects. You only have to spend a quarter of the time in the car to get here versus the Northern Michigan resorts.”

The Harbor Shores development will be divided into four districts: Harbor, Golf, Shores and River, each with distinct features and amenities.

Crossing the bridge on the Michigan Highway into Benton Harbor from St. Joseph, visitors will enter the Harbor District, consisting of destination retail and dining off of the St. Joseph River with marina slips, condominiums and townhouses. “This is the destination retail, a place where you’d walk along the river with your kids,” Eng says.

The development is planned for the former Whirlpool factory site.

Service retail is planned for across the street, with sandwich shops, a video store, convenience store and liquor stores.

Harbor Shores’ representatives are meeting with a “significant Chicago developer that has worked all over the country” for the condo/townhouse portion of the development, Eng says.

“One of the senior guys has a place in Saugatuck and did work on Cabrini Green in Chicago, so they get it,” Hesemann says.

A boutique hotel and spa are also being discussed for the Harbor District.

The River District along the Paw Paw River features Hideaways, a maintenance-free townhouse development being built by green builder Greg Powell. Hideaways will have narrow, private roads and waterfront properties on the Paw Paw River. They will have mature trees, the Paw Paw River and be within walking distance to Jean Klock park and one mile from the arts district in Benton Harbor. The cottages will also have their own clubhouse, a swimming pool and a kayak launch. “It’s ideal for young professionals or retirees,” he says.

Work began on the first two cottages in the River District the day after Thanksgiving. Workers completed the roads there in November. They are still working on finishing the rain gardens that will be used for drainage. By Memorial Day, the roads should be 100 percent complete.

The Shores district is the lakefront district, including Jean Klock Park. Harbor Shores spent $1.5 million in renovations for Jean Klock Park, including cleaning up the bathhouse and grinding an old parking lot to use to create a new road.

Harbor Shores is responsible for the maintenance of the park, but the city of Benton Harbor is responsible for the operations. Hole nine on the golf course is just off the lake behind the beach and the picnic pavilion is in the middle of three other holes.

On the park property is an amenities building, public boat launch, kayak and canoe launch with trail heads along the way.


Dr. Marcus Robinson, president of the Consortium for Community Development, says the transformation taking place through Harbor Shores involves more than just the landscape. “We’re dealing with human beings,” Robinson says. “This is the finest raw material in the universe. It’s the green part of it. You’re growing people. It’s the environmental justice aspect of the project.”

Harbor Shores enabled its partners to provide summer jobs for 1,200 young people, 150 of whom are now involved in year-round job training. Some 100 people are now employed full-time because of the project. Forty Benton Harbor residents received financial literacy training and were approved for mortgages. Every school in Benton Harbor has an after-school supplemental education program with 500 to 700 students being served every school day, all made possible by Harbor Shores.

“When you’re dealing with for-profits, they do the project, put their money in their pocket and move on to the next town,” says Wendy Dant Chesser, president of Cornerstone Alliance. “Here, we take that profit and invest it back in the community.”

The Consortium works with twenty-nine different agencies and meets bimonthly to form a strategy to help the broader community move forward. “The first thing people remark is they are amazed by the breadth and depth of collaboration,” Robinson says. “We aren’t separate organizations working on joint projects. We are one organization working on a single project. We are only now beginning to realize how useful that is. Folks all around the country have listened to our story.”

Chesser says having local control of the project is the key to its success. “People oftentimes want to turn to Lansing to solve all of the problems, but it’s not their responsibility to fix our problems,” Chesser says. “This is a locally generated solution to fixing our own problems. We use government like a toolbox. When we need a tool, we ask them. We’re not waiting for Lansing to tell us what to do.”

McFeeter has developed projects all over the world, including those with serious environmental concerns like Harbor Shores. But he says this one is different. “I get an incredible sense of achievement, because you build something and leave it behind. It’s tangible,” McFeeter says. “Here, it’s different. I have seen changes in the community in the four years I’ve been here and it’s incredible. It’s changing communities in an incredible community revitalization.”

When asked why they don’t simply abandon the project as so many other developers have given the economy and housing market, Chesser goes into her office and returns with photos of her young daughter sitting beside the child of a colleague and another of her family. “What we all have in common is this,” she says, putting the pictures on the table. “What impression do you want your kids to have of their hometown? Where do you want your kids to live?”

Robinson says the locally run, nonprofit aspects of the project drive those involved to ensure it will be successful. “It’s because we live here,” Robinson says. “We aren’t developers who can go to wherever the money is. It’s not ‘not-in-my-backyard.’ It’s ‘yes, in my backyard. Damn straight.’ We better get this done. To quit because the weather is unfriendly is unthinkable. The partners are making sure we weather the storm and not just survive, but come out as one of the best places in the world.”

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The first of its class in Michigan’s Great Southwest, Harbor Shores is proud to present the Jack Nicklaus Golf Course. Recognized for the high standards of Nicklaus Design, The Harbor…

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