Building Benton Harbor: The mission to further economic development

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BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- In the past decade, Benton Harbor has seen two major developments that aim to reimagine a city once bustling with businesses, tourism and residents.

“A lot of Benton Harbor is a blank slate, there are buildings that are still vacant,” said Rob Cleveland, President & CEO of Cornerstone Alliance.

The canal city was a manufacturing hub for nearly all of the 20th century.

The U.S. Census reported nearly 20,000 people lived in Benton Harbor in 1960.

Yet, the city saw a 14% decrease in residents just 10 years later.

Today, Benton Harbor has less than 10,000 residents and downtown, once full of life, is now full of vacant buildings.

But developers have focused on rebuilding Benton Harbor, specifically Main Street and what’s now known as the city’s Arts District.

“There’s been a lot of development on the opposite end of Main Street with Whirlpool’s North American Headquarters and ultimately we’re trying to bring more people into the Arts District and City Center,” said Cleveland.

The focus of the Arts District being refurbishing rundown, century-old buildings to turn into restaurants, retail and art studios.

And more is coming for these historic buildings.

Benton Harbor’s old Farmers and Merchants building was purchased by Cornerstone Alliance, an economic development agency for Berrien County, and now Benton Harbor alumnus and NBA player Wilson Chandler hopes to turn it into the city’s first marijuana dispensary.

“We put $150,000 into the facade, a lot of these buildings are still in good shape, they were built very well but maybe the facades don’t look well, so those are tangible expenses a small business can’t afford,” said Cleveland.

Cornerstone Alliance also invested in an old building on Pipestone and Main, which they’ve brought Cressy Real Estate in to transform into high-rise apartments in hopes of getting more people to live in the city.

“We’ve being able to recruit Cressy to develop and that’s a huge piece of getting people down there, there’s going to be commercial space and a dozen apartments right here in the City Center,” said Cleveland.

One of Benton Harbor’s biggest economic drivers has been Whirlpool Corporation, founded over 100 years ago in the city.

In 2011, the company decided to further its commitment to staying by bringing its Refrigeration Technology Building and North American Headquarters back to Benton Harbor.

“We announced this project and you see a coffee shop, a bank came in and built a new facility, a wonderful restaurant came into town and renovated a building,” said Jeff Noel, Corporate Vice-President of Communications and Public Affairs. “When they see a major development like this and an anchor, they’re willing to invest.”

Those investments on Main Street led to a major project for the city – the creation of the Harbor Shores Golf Course and Resort. 

“Harbor Shores is one of several projects the community envisioned needed to be done to bring back jobs and there were 3 million square feet of old, empty buildings; 48 of what we call Brownfield Contaminated Sites,” said Noel. “The Harbor Shores project began to go out and get these buildings cleaned up and in its place put in a golf course, apartments, businesses.”

Now, thousands have been visiting Benton Harbor every two years for the Senior PGA Golf Championship hosted by Whirlpool’s Kitchen Aid brand.

“The more people can learn about how Benton Harbor is growing and improving, the more people will want to either bring their business here, move here, buy a second home or at least come for vacation,” said Noel.

But it’s getting people to move back to Benton Harbor, not just visit, that will really breathe life back into the economy.

“You can’t build a community without people, you can’t have employers without more people,” said Cleveland.

Whirlpool employees also now pay an income tax, one percent for residents and half of 1 percent of earnings for those working here.

Each year, the company also provides a $1 million challenge grant through Cornerstone Alliance to area businesses.

Cornerstone has also created a new program to encourage people to make Southwest Michigan their permanent home by giving a financial incentive. More information can be found here.

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