Nicklaus Signature Golf Course is driver for economic development in Benton Harbor

With a sure swing of her driver, Trianna Sutton hits another ball and watches it sail.

In the fall of 2009, the 16-year-old became the first female to hit a hole-in-one at Harbor Shores, the golf course at the heart of the 530-acre beach and golf resort development that's reshaping the Southwest corner of Michigan and how people view the region.

The land on which it sits -- abandoned in the mid-'80s when manufacturers took 5,000 jobs and left town, used as an unofficial dump, and in some places so polluted the city couldn't give it away -- has been thoroughly cleaned up and transformed into the rolling hills and sweeping vistas of a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course.

Just as the landscape has changed, leaders expect changes in the lives of those in the community brought about by more jobs, and more opportunities spurred by the development. Some say it could take generations to make a transformation among local residents as thorough as what has happened on the land. But for others the change already is taking place.

Trianna is one of those. Through programs aimed at youngsters and teens -- First Tee and Boys and Girls Club -- Trianna has learned skills she'll use throughout her life. Like setting goals.

Trianna says, for her, those are finishing high school, attending college (MSU she says with a high-five to her Spartan-loving coach) and coming back home to play Harbor Shores -- as a pro golfer.

Another success story is Johnathan Robinson, now attending the University of Pine Bluff Arkansas. A young man who once was not doing well in school started turning things around when introduced to golf. He's parlayed the golf skills he learned in Benton Harbor's youth programs into success in the golf and athletics program at Pine Bluff.

"He's using golf to better his life," says Ebon Sanders, assistant golf pro for Harbor Shores, director of youth development and a driving force behind the programs for young people.

It's taken $70 million, spent by the nonprofit partners of Harbor Shores, to get here, but what were once abstract development concepts being talked up at community meetings and countless tours across the property are now realities for the community.

"It turned out just the way we told people it would," says Marcus Robinson, of the Consortium for Community Development.
 
The 18-hole golf course officially opens Aug. 10 with a lineup of golf greats that's drawing widespread national attention.

At the same time, surrounding residential properties on the development are now for sale. Some custom homes and cottages already are under construction. Cottages in Fairway along the Paw Paw River already are going up. Lots in the development bear sold signs. Some custom homes in Beach Village also are in the works. And movement is being seen in Marina Village where town homes and condominiums will go in. When completed, Harbor Shores will include nearly 800 houses.

So far, at least 60 jobs have been created at Harbor Shores. During construction, the number of jobs created is expected to hit 544 by 2012, including direct jobs and those created through increased economic activity. Spending brought into the area by new homeowners could mean about 116 indirect jobs by 2017, based upon the plans for building in the development. A new hotel is planned for the area could bring with it 115 direct jobs and 32 indirect jobs from consumer spending.

And in downtown Benton Harbor, visible from the course, there is a renewed interest in development, including an office campus recently announced by Whirlpool, expected over time to put 1,000 employees into the downtown.

"Without this economic driver the economic development now occurring would not be taking place," says Wendy Dant Chesser, president of Cornerstone Alliance, the lead economic development agency for Michigan's Southwest corner.
 
If reshaping a community in a shaky economy seems like a lot to expect of a golf course, Nicklaus says he's seen such turnarounds happen twice before.
 
Nicklaus learned how to deal with ecologically compromised land when he built Old Works Golf Course in Anaconda, Mont., on the site of abandoned copper-smelting facilities. His was the first golf course to be built on an EPA designated Superfund site. Before construction the entire area was capped. The greens, bunkers, tree root balls and lake bottoms all were specially lined to prevent leaks. Nicklaus proudly points to the jobs and tourism driven to the once economically devastated Montana town.

He's also created Tournament Players Club in Dearborn. Once a dump site, the land is now part golf course, part wildlife refuge, recognized with a John James Audubon Environmental Steward Award for its ecological restoration.

With such experience, the Nicklaus golf course designers were a natural fit for the work that had to be done at Harbor Shores, which had its own Superfund site issues, when the alliance of non-profit organizations, private businesses and community leaders set out to look for someone to do the job.

Before Nicklaus could get to work on the finer details of the course that are his signature, workers removed more than 117,000 tons of trash, solid waste and concrete from the site, including 20,000 tons of contaminated soils. As Dant Chesser describes it, if all the trash removed was put it all on a football field, goalpost to goalpost, it would fill the field 65 feet high. Invasive species were torn out and native plants restored to their habitats on the course and in public areas.

Through work with the MSU Turf Grass Foundation, special turf has been planted to capture rain runoff so it doesn't flow into Lake Michigan or the Paw Paw River and to minimize the amount of fertilizers and other chemicals used.

Each hole is specially constructed so that golfers at the tee don't see those on the cart paths. The course is designed to show off its natural setting along the river, through a forest and in the sand dunes of Lake Michigan.

"It's the perfect marriage between taking away what was not needed, improving on what was already there, and leaving the rest to God's work," Marcus Robinson says.

On the 18-hole course, even the golf tees come with a metaphor. Each tee has a specially designed piece of artwork, created by Benton Harbor artists, with shining glass flowers, representing a plant growing at Harbor Shores, on a beautifully rusted metal background.

The project is one Nicklaus says he deeply believes in -- in large part because of the way it has brought together government officials from Benton Harbor, St. Joseph, Benton Charter Township, nonprofit organizations and private business.

He appreciates that the Harbor Shores development is managed by three nonprofits -- Cornerstone Alliance, the Consortium for Community Development and Whirlpool Foundation.

And Nicklaus says the market of 30 million people within a half-day's drive, drawing from from Detroit, Indianapolis and Chicago, is large enough to assure the project's success over the next 20 years.

"It will take time," Nicklaus says in a phone interview. "But the current economy is not a huge issue."

When the Nicklaus Academy of Golf goes up there will be one more reason for people to visit the area, says Ron Eng, of Evergreen Development. The academy will be the first Nicklaus Academy in the Midwest and the fifth in the nation.

Ultimately, the development along 25 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline is about connecting people with opportunity, says Robinson.

 "When you have parents who see what these programs mean in the life of their kids, that's what transformation is all about."

Kathy Jennings is the editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Erik Holladay.


Harbor Shores Golf Course has opened a temporary clubhouse off State Street in Benton Harbor.


Harbor Shores Clubhouse and patio.


Ebon Sanders, Assistant Golf Instructor at Harbor Shores, helps Trianna Sutton with her swing as Arlando Lamb, 10, and Leroy Roberts, 17 practice in the background.


A view from the Pro Tees at the 9th Fairway.


The signature golden bear symbol adorns every golf cart.


Sculptures by local artists are found at every tee box.


The spirit of Harbor Shores symbol.

Signup for Email Alerts