Read the full Op-Ed
Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that really matter.” Silence all too often invites a platform for the voices of the very few who fear change and prefer the status quo. Silence no more, for the journey we as a community are on must continue. And with it, allow the chorus of those silent volunteers dedicated to a common cause to be the gospel of truth.
Countless communities are working together to address decades of blight, lack of stable local government funding and population losses, all of which exacerbate chronic social and economic challenges. Benton Harbor is no different. While we recognize that much work remains on our journey of change, we believe Benton Harbor is a beacon of hope for communities across the U.S. reflected by the spirit of so many who are actively working every day to bring about a better way of life for all.
The clearest picture of where a community is going can be seen by reflecting on where it has been. Imagine just thirty years ago, an area with millions of square feet of dilapidated buildings, hundreds of acres lying fallow, an ever widening bridge between skills and available jobs, a community with little to offer its youth, and no new stick-built housing having been constructed in almost 20 years. Pictures do not lie, and aerial photographs of 30 years ago only reinforce what Money Magazine once wrote in placing Benton Harbor last on its list of 300 cities in America.
Compare that stark reality with today in our community – with a Main Street on the positive curve toward vibrancy, $750 million of new vertical construction, over 440 new affordable housing units and more than 1,200 children being served in new and fully staffed Boys and Girls Club facilities.
There are so many examples of innovation and community progress that go beyond words and rhetoric.
- A church in Benton Heights that runs an auto-repair service to teach a trade while discounting and giving reliable means of transportation to those in need
- That same church now constructing a community laundromat for partners to use as a gathering place for the delivery of services
- Over 110 new Habitat for Humanity houses built over the years thanks to the help of local businesses, local government and thousands of volunteers
- A local developer constructing 66 new housing units for those most in need
- The local Boys and Girls Club working to open a new Best Buy Technical Teen Center for training and career development
- Our local hospital opening a community health center in downtown Benton Harbor to increase mentoring services
- Our local community college offering free tuition for Benton Harbor students
- Almost a $1 million in upgrades to a local park
- New security systems installed across all four square miles of the city
- An 80 unit $22 million housing development being constructed to rebuild old infrastructure, attracting young diverse residents to the area and adding an estimated $100,000 per year to local coiffers
- A state of the art wi-fi system upgrade being made to benefit all residents in the community
- And so much more…
Any major transformation is not without challenges, and effective leaders deal with the obstacles they face. Such is the case of the identification of leaded water pipes connecting dwellings to main water lines in Benton Harbor. The United States Environmental Protection Agency first formally recognized this as a national issue in 2018. There are an estimated 12 million such lead pipes located in every state in the U.S.
The city of Benton Harbor has an estimated 2,800 lead pipes that must be replaced. The elected leadership of Benton Harbor has been aggressive in working to secure $20 million of federal and state funding to deal with this problem. That work is over 37 percent complete today, and is anticipated to be finished in the spring of 2023. The City will also use upward of $45 million of federal funds recently provided for a myriad of community and economic development projects, including work on the water plant and water lines.
This issue is the most pressing for our community today, but it should not overshadow 30 years of ongoing collaboration to improve Benton Harbor.
Harbor Shores is an inspiring example of this effort. The Harbor Shores development was a great collaboration between Benton Harbor, Benton Charter Township, the city of St. Joseph, Berrien County and Whirlpool Corporation to channel $84 million toward removing and upgrading wooden and in some cases lead water lines, dealing with 48 state-designated brownfield sites and cleaning up a federal SuperFund site.
When Whirlpool Corporation and its Foundation agreed to take on the Harbor Shores project, while also bringing 400 new jobs to the community, then Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm wrote to then Whirlpool Chairman and CEO Jeff Fettig, “We commit the State of Michigan to support infrastructure funding, along with other state funding as available and when eligible for environmental cleanup, and for development of residential and commercial properties.”
On another one of the Harbor Shores sites, Whirlpool Corporation chose to build its new North American headquarters and renovated an empty building for its Global Refrigeration Technology Center. The over 750 employees in these buildings have only helped to stimulate development along Main Street with a new bank, restaurants and loft apartments. And, as a result, created a pre-covid revenue stream of city income tax funds approaching $1.5 million annually for road and public infrastructure improvements.
Hosting the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship is an investment that is part of the strategy to redevelop and grow our community, a growth that can only be achieved by stimulating investment from within and attracting resources externally from those who learn about and believe in the path we are on to take action of turning possibilities into realities.
The snapshot today is not our endpoint. Rather, it is a tangible reason to see and believe in our continued journey – where all residents, and not just a few, have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams. And there the voices of the many are finally heard.
While this journey continues, we welcome the 2022 KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship. We will use the spotlight this Championship brings us to invite others to learn more, get the facts and become a part of our journey. Together, we are building a better future for the residents of Benton Harbor.