Heavenly Harbor Shores Development Brings Fortune, Fame, & Renewed Faith to a Struggling Shoreline City
By Don Shell
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — The greatest golf courses have more to offer more than just beauty, tenacity, or pedigree. The really special ones, the iconic courses, have a way of changing a community, and even its identity, in a way that merely mortal tracks cannot.
The Golf Club at Harbor Shores, the spectacular new Jack Nicklaus-designed centerpiece of an ambitious golf and real estate Mecca, is just that kind of course. It’s full of beauty, tenacity and pedigree, most certainly. But while it’s a triumph of challenge, it’s also a catalyst for change.
RECLAIMED, RESTORED, REBORN
It’s a partly cloudy Friday in early May when we pull off I-94 onto Main Street in the shoreline city of Benton Harbor, Mich., which sits an hour and a half from Chicago on the beaches of Lake Michigan. The signs of the manufacturing city’s struggles are evident, but it doesn’t take long to see signs of change, as well. Storefronts, shops, eateries and even art galleries now line the streets where vacant buildings long stood, and a quick turn downtown spills us into a brand-new haven in the heart of Benton Harbor — the sensational Harbor Shores development.
Harbor Shores, planned to be a 530-acre real estate/marina/hotel/shopping and golf course extravaganza, sits on what was once a decaying, industrial brownfield site, a tarnished treasure on the banks of the Paw Paw River and the shores of Lake Michigan. When the city’s industrial boom went bust in the 1980s, factories shuttered their doors for good, leaving massive unemployment and an environmental morass in their wake.
A former foundry, city dump and other factories left town, and left the land laced with toxic levels of mercury and radium, too. The pollution was so severe the Environmental Protection Agency named it a Superfund site, as one of the most toxic in the nation.
Today, after several years of intensive cleanup and the removal of 117,000 tons of trash (yes, you read that right), the reclamation of the land is nothing short of startling.
“From my vantage point, knowing what was here and what’s been done, it’s really amazing,” says Ebon Sanders, a man who should know. Sanders is Harbor Shores’ Assistant Golf Professional, as well as the Executive Director of the First Tee of Benton Harbor, which has benefitted immensely from the new development. Sanders is also a local, who grew up just across the St. Joseph River in St. Joe, and whose parents were longtime educators in Benton Harbor. “There are a lot of positive things going on, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
FROM BROWN TO GREEN
He isn’t alone. While the development has its detractors, who protested the use of Jean Klock Park on the club’s lakeside holes, the community as a whole is coming around. In a little town of 11,000 with roughly 40 percent unemployment, a development adding an estimated 700 eventual jobs — and an undeniable boost to tourism — is a difference that’s felt right away.
“Really, it’s a catalyst,” explained General Manager/Director of Golf Ross Smith. “To take an area that was brownfields and rundown buildings, and mercury superfund cleanup site and a city dump, and going through the scrutiny of probably the most environmental oversight of a project, and reclaiming the land that had sat dormant for 25 years … it’s cleaning up an area that many people have bypassed over the years, but now have a reason to stop.”
More than that, now they’ve got a great reason to visit — in the form of the 6,856 glorious green yards Jack built.
Nicklaus took on the unique challenge of the site, from the massive cleanup, to maneuvering existing businesses and infrastructure, creating an extraordinary golf experience.
A COURSE BUILT BY BEAUTY — AND VARIETY
Playing at a par of 71, the course winds its way through a vibrant and varied terrain, including 10 holes along the banks of the Paw Paw River, Ox Creek and wetlands, four holes running through rolling hills, ravines and forest, and three legendary lakeside holes. Each hole bears a unique name, as well as a truly unique custom piece of local art, in honor of Mr. Nicklaus’s 18 Major Championships. Make sure to stop and read the placards before teeing off.
The club’s incredible variety is one of the many reasons it’s a special place, Smith said.
“What’s so interesting about this golf course, is the fact that it’s compartmentalized into four different sections,” Smith explained. “The first six holes are just great-designed Jack Nicklaus golf holes. Then you go into Jean Klock Park, which are three of the most fabulous golf holes you’ll ever see, playing into the dunes of Lake Michigan. Then the course goes back up and it’s kind of like playing in Northern Michigan, elevation drops, hardwood forest, just really, really beautiful holes. Then, the last five wrap around the Paw Paw River and wetlands.”
It doesn’t take long to become a believer, as the fantastic, 423-yard par-4 first hole makes a great first impression. With a generous fairway and gentle green, it’s a great chance to start your round off right.
The first — and maybe best — of Harbor Shores’ five fabulous par 3’s greets you at 2. At 174 yards from the tips, it’s not the longest, but it’s definitely the prettiest. (It also graces our nameplate.)
After the driveable par-4 third, demanding, 209-yard par-3 fourth, and the water & wetland wonders at the fifth and sixth holes, you come to Harbor Shores’ own “Amen Corner.”
From an island tee box, the spectacular, 436-yard par-4 seventh is the prettiest — and toughest — on the course. Wetlands and a small lake to the right force shots to the center of the fairway, with a blind approach to an elevated green, tucked 25 feet above you into the sand dune. Arrive safely and you’re treated to the most amazing view on the course: the wide blue of Lake Michigan beyond, and the beaches of Jean Klock Park below.
You’ll tee off from that vantage point on the 384-yard eighth, which doglegs around the dune to a large green surrounded by sandy hillside and bunkers. On the elevated tee at the 578-yard ninth, take one last look at the lake behind you, before sailing your shot to the fairway floor 60 feet below.
“When you’re on the seventh green, and playing the eighth tee and ninth tee,” Smith described, “sitting there looking right down into Lake Michigan … I mean, those holes are just cut right out of the sand dunes.”
After the sand and sun, the course heads into the hardwoods, with the 539-yard par-5 10th. While most of the greens offer a little “spice,” as Nicklaus described in one interview, the 10th has enough spice to give anyone some heartburn, thanks to the massively multi-tiered mounding.
Just don’t tell that to Jack. Nicklaus added another notch to his legacy with a 100-foot putt on the 10th hole, during the televised “Champions For Change,” fundraising event in August 2010 (watch the video here). The event drew an all-star lineup of Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller, helping raise more than $1 million for the First Tee and Boys & Girls Club of Benton Harbor, and making for one amazing grand opening.
The remainder of the back nine proves equal parts steak and sizzle. The best of the back comes at the par-5 15th, bisected by the river, and the awesome 18th, a 420-yard par-4 bordered by river along the right and punctuated by Jack’s beautiful bunkering. It’s a fine finish, one befit a championship caliber course, and one that’ll leave you ready to return.
Harbor Shores might be brand-new, but it’s already ready for its time to shine. That was clear at the Champions for Change event last summer, and it’ll get another chance in 2012 and 2014, when it hosts the Senior PGA Championship, sponsored by the hometown home appliance heroes KitchenAid and Whirlpool.
“Obviously that’s because of KitchenAid and Whirlpool getting into a partnership with the PGA of America,” Smith said. “Lo and behold, we have this event. We’re very excited.”
So is the community, which is lining up to show off its renewed charms and make the event a success.
“We’re going to need about 1,600 volunteers for this event, and we did it in about a month and a half,” Smith said. “Coming to a small town like Benton Harbor and St. Joe, the civic involvement … everybody’s got pride in their hometown. There’s no doubt the people in this area are really interested.”
“We’re really excited. It’s great for the golf course, but more so for the area,” he said. “It’s brought in a lot of revenue, a lot of attention, and there’s a lot of possibility.”
A BRIGHT FUTURE
That’s all set to increase astronomically, if Harbor Shores Community Redevelopment has anything to do with it. The group behind the development was founded as a joint venture by a variety of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph business organizations, including the Whirlpool Corporation and the cities themselves, among others.
So, together with Evergreen Development’s Bob McFeeter and Mark Hesemann, the Harbor Shores development dream began to become reality. Hesemann, who spent 17 years working for Nicklaus Design, was an invaluable piece of the Harbor Shores puzzle, and found the natural fit with Nicklaus.
With a showstopper of a centerpiece to build around, the development’s going gangbusters. Phase I of the homesites is all but sold out, with phases II & III now underway. Nearly 800 homes are planned for the community, ranging from elegant riverfront cottages, to golf course estates and marina condos. A deepwater marina, retail shops, and hotel are all in development, too. The result is a development designed for a fresh start in Benton Harbor.
And a new generation. The course is also home to one of the country’s best First Tee programs, led by Sanders, who has been with the First Tee of Benton Harbor since he helped start it in his hometown in 2004. With a 2,500-square-foot clubhouse especially for the First Tee, free range and course privileges, and even job opportunities at the course, it’s safe to say the kids involved have a future as bright as Harbor Shores itself.
“Harbor Shores has had an unbelievable impact on how we operate and our visibility,” Sanders said. “The program’s grown immensely, and now it’s unlike any other program in the country.”
Sanders has lofty goals for the program, but even loftier goals for the kids.
“It’s not just about golf,” he explained. “We teach core values in the program. I tell the kids, I want them to be great golfers, but I want to make sure they’re doing the right things, and on the path to success in life. And there’s not a better sport than golf to teach them.”
Like his First Tee program, Sanders has similar goals for what the Harbor Shores development can accomplish in the community he calls home.
“The project as a whole — even if we’re somewhat successful — it’s going to have a big impact,” he said. “A lot of people are seeing this area turn the corner here, and the golf course is the first step. There are a lot of positive things going on. People are seeing the value Benton Harbor has. Things are changing.”
All it took was the right spark.
Green fees at The Golf Club at Harbor Shores range from $105 weekdays for Berrien County residents/$125 non-residents, to $125/$150 weekends. Twilight rates are just $85 after 3 p.m. Click here or call 269.927.4653 for tee times.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE
136 Territorial Rd
Sure, there’s fancier fixins in the area (try Tosi’s), you just can’t beat award-winning barbecue after a round. $10 bucks buys you a half-slab of ribs, or you can get the Big Mama Sampler of pork, beef and chicken for — uurrpp! — $12.50.
190 5th Street
Don’t miss Benton Harbor’s finest brewpub, The Livery, just a wedge away from the course. With nearly a dozen custom microbrews on tap and almost two dozen more on hand, if you can’t find one you love, you’re not trying hard enough.
Jean Klock Beach
For all the hoopla over the course’s use of Jean Klock Park, the beach has reaped all kinds of rewards, including new parking and pavilion. The cleanup has returned the pristine beach to picture-perfect, and people are rediscovering Jean Klock in droves. “Last Fourth of July it looked like the Jersey shore, there were so many people out there,” Smith said.
Sunscreen not included.
521 Lake Boulevard, Saint Joseph
Located on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, The Boulevard Inn is one of the area’s finest. It’s also one of the hotels Harbor Shores partners with for its special Stay & Play packages, making it the perfect fit for your foursome.