Twin Cities Harbor: Transforming the waterfront

Benton Harbor and St. Joseph Michigan share a very valuable asset many experts call "underutilized" but that is now changing. Momentum is building to transform the old, industrial Twin Cities Harbor into a world class destination for boaters, shoppers and residents.

A new study from the Michigan Port Collaborative shows how valuable harbors really are when it comes to tourism.

In 2017, the St. Joe River Port supported nearly 3,000 jobs---generating $344 million in water-based tourism and recreation, four times the amount commercial and industrial businesses created, and those numbers could skyrocket if the public gets behind plans to completely remake the waterfront.

“We’ve hauled millions of tons of stone over this property, sand, stone even lumber,” says Jack Kinney

Kinney's family owns a triangular piece of property called the Central Dock on the Benton Harbor side of the river where their asphalt company did business for decades.

But now Kinney sees the empty concrete slab as part of Benton Harbor’s rebirth, possibly being turned into an upscale, mixed-use development of housing, hotels, restaurants, stores, parks and marinas.

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammed is trying to rally community support for taking the three-year-old Twin Cities Harbor Study commissioned by his city and actually turning it into reality.

“There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come," Muhammed said.

Muhammad knows there could be some resistance.

“Are we content with the way things are, or do we want to see some serious revolutionary change and bring to this area economic development economic growth? We need to show residents and give them a picture of what could be," Muhammed said.

And the pictures created by Andrews University in 2015 are simply astounding.

“This plan gave us a starting point. It is a game changer,” says Michael Garey, Mayor of St. Joseph, Michigan.

Garey supports the idea too.

On his side of the river the mostly unused land behind the Berrien County Courthouse could be transformed into a flourishing public space with terraced landscaping, picnic areas, outdoor art, apartments and docks to attract visiting boaters off Lake Michigan and possibly even a pedestrian bridge to a revamped marina island that sits right between the two cities. Both mayors know they have to get community input and support before any shovels hit the ground.

“We don’t want to make this Disney World. Each community has its assets, its benefits and that should be reflected in its development at the waterfront,” Garey said.

Developers like Peter Colovos, who has invested in Chicago, Grand Rapids and Benton Harbor, see the power of the riverfront to bring about a once in a lifetime change.

“It’s obvious it’s a huge opportunity to fuel our economy, to give us our quality of life to have assets and amenities education, infrastructure, that doesn’t happen unless we have a tremendous economic engine looking to the future and building a place where people want to be."

Right now both Benton Harbor and St. Joseph are working on updating their downtown master plans to help move the project forward and the redevelopment could also help unite the two communities that have long been divided by the St. Joe River.

“It’s another connection between the two cities,” says Cornerstone Alliance President Rob Cleveland.

His non-profit helped get a new pedestrian bridge built this year connecting the growing Harbor Shores development and its hotel in St. Joe directly the Benton Harbor Arts District.

Cornerstone is also bringing in four new docks to create a water taxi service by the summer of 2020.

“All of these projects that take place should build on top of one another and you build a little bit more trust along the way and a little bit more collaboration and you see the benefits that all of these projects have in your community,” Cleveland said.

But there are many challenges too, including what to do with the huge piles of stone and salt that sit on Dock 63 on Marina Island between the two cities.

Also keeping the harbor dredged deep enough for boat traffic, finding developers, building community support and winning over critics who might call the Benton Harbor portion of the redevelopment gentrification aimed at moving mostly poor, minority residents.

But Mayor Muhammad believes people will get behind the project if they’re included in the planning and see the possibilities,

“We can develop, we can bring added resources and increase the commercial tax base as well as housing and include residents. The status quo cannot be maintained and I’m asking people to stretch your mind," Muhammed said.

For his part, Kinney wants to make sure Benton Harbor and its residents aren’t left out of this beautiful vision of the future.

“If they can work that out and put it together like the same way that St. Joe is being developed then I’m all for it. It’s got to be shared between the two cities.”

Twin Cities Harbor study

Michigan Ports study

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