Vacant lots on Empire Street that hopefully will be part of the Empire Corridor development.
"Welcome to a visionary journey that transcends boundaries and ignites the power of collective imagination. Our community is embarking on a bold revitalization plan for the Empire Corridor in Benton Harbor that envisions a neighborhood transformed into a vibrant haven for all. Together, we will unlock the limitless potential of our streets, homes, and hearts, redefining what’s possible for our beloved neighborhood."
This bold statement on the Benton Harbor Community Development Corporation’s website
seems almost too good to be true. But it’s not. The project — Transformation Beyond Imagination, the Empire Corridor Historic District Revitalization — is led by Ashley Hines, executive director and founder of the Benton Harbor Community Development Corporation
“We launched as a completely resident-driven volunteer effort to revitalize the community from the inside out,” says Hines. “Being a small, waterfront community, there was a lot of development happening downtown along the water. We launched with the goal to spearhead equitable growth throughout the inner city while addressing some major systemic issues as well.”
Community advocate James Gunter and Ashley Hines, executive director, Benton Harbor Community Development Corporation, in front of a future neighborhood hub on Broadway Avenue in Benton Harbor.
Rebuilding the future for their community
Hines founded the organization in November 2020 to revitalize the community by strengthening the people of Benton Harbor socioeconomically, physically, and mentally by supporting and empowering residents through community development projects and programming. The organization’s goal is to create a community where residents share in its success and improvement.
“Before launching the Transformation Beyond Imagination project, we spent years rallying and engaging the community through smaller projects to get them involved with the work,” says Hines. “We knew we had to be intentional about our efforts to ensure we had a plan that reflected community needs, desires, and aspirations and, in order to do that, the community had to know the BHCDC as theirs.”
To achieve this mission, Hines and her team created people-centered programming in housing, community support services, and economic development that mobilize and support residents to participate in the planning and implementation of community projects that improve their quality of life and attract residents to homeownership while developing quality affordable housing.
“We want to ensure the projects and initiatives we propose don't lead to displacement over time and create equitable opportunities for residents,” says Hines. “We see gentrification happening in cities across the country, and we don't want to continue the cycle of putting band-aids on issues that affect our urban communities. Systemic change for communities at times looks like creating your own systems and, almost always, looks like economic equity for the people who live there. That's what we're trying to achieve here.”
Andrews University students on site with BHCDC.
Bringing the whole community together
The BHCDC’s multi-layered work is being accomplished with the help of a board of advisors as well as partners in the community, including residents, community organizations, schools, anchor institutions, government, businesses, and employers. Two of those local partners are associate architecture professors from Andrews University
, Mark Moreno and Stella Abijuru.
“Ashley is a champion for her neighborhood,” Moreno says. “She was seeking an opportunity for Andrews University to partner. Our classes try to reach out into the community and build relationships and help them with projects, so it seemed like we would make a great team together. We have mission-oriented work, and our design studio is taking on Ashley’s project for the whole semester.”
Moreno and Abijuru’s students are part of the "Freedom by Design" class. They participate in listening sessions that happen within the community to hear what the people want and need.
“Our students were there and listened and identified that the community has a lot of aspirational goals and hopes,” Moreno says. “All students designed architectural ideas based on what they heard and their passion. There was not a lot of duplication.”
Ideas generated to revitalize the community included greenhouses to extend the garden that Hines’ has already started; pavilions in the garden; spaces for people to do mentoring, work on mental health, or provide tutoring or learning skills; a birthing center; a grocery story; and a laundromat that doubles as a social hang-out.
“While all these aren’t all practical right away, the idea is to help generate a greater discussion and bring Ashley in to help us create a master plan,” Moreno says. “Our studio is based largely on how people interact with each other and how people interact with place — generating a sense of place and belonging through architecture. “
Boarded up building on Empire Street.
Main objectives for the project include developing a plan to revitalize the blighted commercial district in the neighborhood.
“In 2022, we rallied residents to prevent the demolition of the corridor and are now actively working on redevelopment plans,” says Hines. “In addition, our organization has acquired a previously fire-damaged property next to our community garden. This property is a part of the plan and is currently being rehabbed to serve as a community resiliency hub. We're also exploring a community land trust
and co-operative real estate development. Lastly, throughout our listening sessions community members expressed a strong desire for social cohesion and recreation, so we'll be addressing that as well.”
Currently, Hines and her team at the BHCDC are conducting community sessions to develop a plan that truly reflects the desires of the neighborhood. That process consists of listening sessions, learning sessions, and trips to visit other communities to see resident-led projects.
“A lot of residents have acquired homes and vacant lots but don't have a ton of information, connections, or resources to develop them,” Hines says. “Through this project, we are building a network and support system to help them get their projects to the finish line.”
The African American History Gallery is on Broadway Avenue in Benton Harbor's Empire Corridor.
Creating a bigger support system
Another network and support system utilized by Hines and her team, the advisory board assists with this project. Board member James Gunter is executive director of Present Pillars
, which focuses on supporting families through responsible fatherhood.
“As an advisory board member, I give Ashley advice on a variety of topics, help with event coordination, and help spread the word about events, resources, and education on the various topics that the project covers,” Gunter says. “I believe the revitalization of the Empire Corridor will spur deeper desires to revitalize the rest of the city. Our city has done a great job focusing on downtown. There are some plans to introduce new housing structures throughout the city, but Transformation Beyond Imagination gives everyday residents of the city a chance to be a part of the process, and that's where the real change begins.”
"Together, we will unlock the limitless potential of our streets, homes, and hearts, redefining what’s possible for our beloved neighborhood."
Tracy Jennings, a member of the BHCDC Board of Directors who previously served the City of Benton Harbor as director of community and economic development, is participating in creating the community-led Empire Corridor Neighborhood Revitalization Plan with the BHCDC and other interested community members, partners, and stakeholders.
“I am most looking forward to the overall revitalization and reinvigoration of this area,” says Jennings. “I look forward to the Empire Corridor becoming a beacon within the community, a place where the community can gather, for whatever reason, because the amenities of a thriving and flourishing neighborhood community are present. I look forward to patronizing businesses in this corridor and attending social community events there in the future as well.”
Hines’ goal for the next few months is to complete the full written plan. Over the next several years, she aims to see key elements of the plan come to fruition. In particular, the commercial corridor, which she believes will serve as a cornerstone.
“While we're still creating the plan, we know change won't happen overnight and that significant investment will be involved,” Hines says. “Our project has an advisory committee and a catalyst committee. The catalyst committee consists of experts, developers, and lending partners to guide us throughout this journey to ensure the plan goes beyond a written document and can be implemented after it's created. I'm extremely excited about this project and what it means for our community. I'm proud of my neighbors for how they have embraced this process. I look forward to creating a more vibrant community that we accomplish together.”
Kelsey Sanders is a wellness professional and freelance writer and editor. She has lived in West Michigan her whole life and loves learning and writing about the many great things her area continues to do. When she’s not working, she’s staying home with her baby girl and enjoying the Lakeshore with her husband.
Photos by John Grap.
Photo of Andrews University students courtesy Mark Moreno.
Supported by FHLBank Indianapolis, IFF, and the Community Economic Development Association
(CEDAM), the Block by Block series follows small-scale minority-driven development and affordable housing issues in the state of Michigan.