Precious natural asset or prime real estate?

This article was published in the Spring 2007 issue of EJ Magazine, a magazine of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, and can be found here as well.

Precious natural asset or prime real estate?

Residents in Benton Harbor, Mich., fight for their park

BY SARAH KOZICKI

A development group has proposed building a beach and golf community on this ‘last and largest piece of prime real estate that’s so very close to Chicago.’

Photo courtesy of Carol Drake/Friends of Jean Klock Park

Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor is one of the oldest parks in Michigan, yet it is facing what supporters call “the worst threat of its 89-year history.”

Harbor Shores Community Redevelopment, Inc. has proposed a beach and golf resort community on the park, along the lakeshore in both Benton Harbor and St. Joseph — “The last and largest piece of prime real estate that’s so very close to Chicago,” according to David Whitwam, chairman of the development company. The master plan includes a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course, indoor water park, resort hotel and more than 1,000 new single-family homes.

Jean Klock Park was donated to Benton Harbor in 1917 by John and Carrie Klock, who dedicated the park in memory of their daughter, Jean, who died in infancy. In the deed, they designated the park for public use and demanded that it remain in the public trust forever. Nevertheless, the park has lost 17 acres, first to a cloverleaf interchange for M-63 in the 1950s, then to a residential development in 2003.

The park includes open dunes, Great Lakes marsh and interdunal wetland — three natural communities considered rare in Michigan. According to state-certified botanist Leon Schaddelee, “Much better examples of all three exist along our West Michigan coastline, but nowhere that I know of do all three exist in such close proximity.”

In addition to these unique communities, Jean Klock Park is home to several rare plant species, including the state-threatened Sabatia angularis, commonly known as the rose pink. Though many parts of the park have been significantly degraded over the years, Schaddelee and other park advocates feel the park still represents a valuable natural resource.

Harbor Shores Community Redevelopment has staked out parts of Jean Klock Park for construction of the golf course. According to Friends of Jean Klock Park, a non-profit group, “The proposal would impact the park’s low-lying marsh, and coastal wetland areas and would travel behind and along the ridge of the park’s unique and fragile dune structure.”

In addition, operation of a golf course could affect the area’s water quality. “Golf courses typically have many herbicides and fertilizers applied to them,” said Sheila Sobaski, professor of molecular biology at Albion College. “Should runoff of these chemicals occur, it can have negative impacts on the local watershed.”

Opponents of the development said Harbor Shores insists on using the site despite the potential environmental consequences because of its rich beachfront property. Luanne Kozma, director of Michigan’s Defense of Place, said developers don’t need to use the park for the golf course: “They are holding the park hostage to an entire development. Those in favor of the development say the golf course will bring in jobs, but those jobs should not come at the expense of the city’s only park on Lake Michigan.”

Even in Michigan’s economically dismal climate, Benton Harbor stands out — 42.6 percent of residents and 39.6 percent of families are below the poverty line. Park advocates say the city considers the prospect of jobs and tourism strong incentives. This idea is supported by the nearby Whirlpool Foundation. According to Whitwam, who is also the former CEO of Whirlpool, “We’re acting as a catalyst for Harbor Shores. The heart of our plans is to create jobs and invest in the diversity of our local communities.”

According to Carol Drake, member of Friends of Jean Klock Park, this presents the citizens of Benton Harbor with an unfair dichotomy: “They’re being forced to choose between the environment and jobs when they could have both,” she said.

In what development opponents consider a striking environmental justice issue, the golf course and surrounding housing developments would isolate the park from the inner city, limiting access to the predominantly poor, African-American residents of Benton Harbor. “It’s going to be like putting a wall up between the park and the residents,” Drake said. “The development will add an entire new element, culturally speaking, and there is going to be a clash. The children of Benton Harbor will not feel comfortable using the expansion of the park.”

While development proponents insist that the golf course will be open to the public, park advocates counter that a golf course represents a restricted public use because it would be owned privately, not publicly as a park should be. “The people of Benton Harbor will not be able to afford to play golf,” Drake said.

If the proposed plan goes through, the new entrance to the park, which would feature the Harbor Shores Beach and Golf Lodge, would be in St. Joseph, taking ownership away from Benton Harbor. In addition, the traditional uses of the park, which include baptisms, church suppers, weddings, picnics and an annual blues festival, would be eliminated.

According to Larry Streeter, a 25-year resident of Benton Harbor, all hope for Jean Klock Park is not lost. Streeter thinks the park should be used as an outdoor classroom. His ideas include building wheelchair-accessible gardens and a natural history museum, and he hopes to use these ideas to create a counter initiative to deter the development of the golf course. Schaddelee agrees: “The site’s potential for environmental interpretation of our Great Lakes coastal heritage is excellent. It would be put to much better use as a nature center than a golf course.”

Depending on one’s point of view, Jean Klock Park might represent a precious natural asset or a prime piece of real estate — maybe even an outdoor community center. But as Streeter put it: “Money’s not going to do it. We need the park.

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