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High-priced golfing has arrived in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Now we'll see if rising fortunes follow.
Scores of Rust Belt communities are trying to figure out how to turn their abandoned, polluted industrial properties back into job-producing resources. As I wrote last year, one of the more controversial plans was conceived in Benton Harbor, a small, struggling city across the lake whose leaders decided to get golf legend Jack Nicklaus to design an 18-hole course that could attract moneyed out-of-towners.
The project was embraced by many local residents who welcomed investment of almost any kind, and it was bitterly opposed by others who were angry that it called for converting 22 acres of a public lakefront park into holes 7, 8, and 9 of the course. Supporters predicted it would produce hundreds if not thousands of new jobs; critics wondered what kind of jobs they'd be (watering the greens so the wealthy can golf?) and said it was short-sighted and wrong to sell off a publicly owned natural resource.
Naturally, it ended up in court.
In fact, one of the opponents' legal challenges is still in court. So far the city and development team have triumphed, though, and work on the project is well underway. Nine holes opened last month, and when I was in town last weekend dozens of people had paid the $75 fee and were out giving them a try.
I also got a glimpse of how the project is coming along. The course winds through areas of natural beauty and industrial development. This particular spot is at least a mile east of the lake, right on the banks of the Paw Paw River and just around the bend from a former Superfund site where houses are supposed to go up.
The dunes at the center of the controversy haven't been incorporated into the course—yet. But the bulldozers have been out at Jean Klock Park. Last year the climb from the park's parking lot to the crest of the first dune looked like this:
And from the top there was a nice view of the lake.
Proponents of the project argued that the park was underused and poorly maintained anyway, and in the last year developers have spruced up the beach portion of it. On Sunday a not-so-hard-hitting story in the local paper, the Herald-Palladium, quoted visitors to the park saying they think the place looks better than it has in years.
But the dunes really don't exist in the form they did before. About half of them will be swallowed by the course, and in those places the vegetation has been stripped away and the sand pushed around so that much of the incline is gone. And of course members of the public can't access this area any more even if they wanted to.
It's obviously too soon to gauge whether this will end up being an economic engine, or if the community will end up deciding it was worth plowing over a sand dune or two to give it a try.