Benton Harbor destination golf resort flourishes on the site of radiation-contaminated Superfund land

“I’ve been fortunate enough to play a lot of golf all over the country and I’ve never played a course like this. I’ve played a lot of Nicklaus courses and never seen one like this,” said Joshua Doxtator, who has been the course’s general manager for two years and a PGA professional for 16 years at courses in Green Bay and Phoenix. “It was far and above what I expected when I first came here to see it.”

The golf course is run as a nonprofit and funnels its operating surpluses into maintaining the 12-mile public trail system in and around the course and the nearby Jean Klock Park Beach, providing free golf instruction to kids through the First Tee program in Benton Harbor, funding various job training and educational programs in the area, and making donations to the local Boys and Girls Clubs of America as well as all three local public school districts.

It’s the centerpiece of what has become a sprawling center of economic development and commerce.

“It all started with an idea,” said Rob Cleveland, the CEO of Cornerstone Alliance, an economic development organization that targets projects throughout Berrien County.

Cleveland credited executives at Whirlpool Corp. and the Whirlpool Foundation for being prime drivers of reclaiming and remaking all that damaged land, especially Whirlpool CEO Dave Whitham, at the start, and then his successor, Jeff Fettig. “It took decades to get there but it couldn’t have worked out any better.”

Whirlpool makes the KitchenAid line of cooking equipment and earned the right for the resort to host the PGA’s senior tournament biannually — last year’s tourney was canceled because of COVID — by becoming the naming rights sponsor to what is now the KitchenAid PGA Senior Tour Championship. Whirlpool also hosts a charity golf tournament at the course each summer.

It took vision

When Nicklaus visited Harbor Shores with his team in 2007, he was less than impressed by what he saw. Though much of the debris had been hauled off, there were still mounds of it scattered around. He was driven through what would become the 15th hole on a path banked by mounds of refuse 15 feet high.

The land was chewed up from all the heavy machinery, and there was so much overgrown brush, they couldn’t get through it to get to the river.

“Where do you expect me to build this golf course?” Nicklaus asked his local guides.

Reluctantly, thinking this might be one project where he was biting off more than he could chew, he agreed to take it on.

As if turning one of the most contaminated brownfield sites in the country into a tourist-destination golf course wasn’t ambitious enough, the vision was for something grander than just 18 holes of golf. So far, total development costs, including demolition, land clearing, building the course and such amenities as restaurants and more than 200 units of housing has cost upward of $500 million.

Tens of millions of that has come from a wide range of local, state and federal grants, loans and tax credits, including an EPA revolving loan fund; Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Transportation grants; Renaissance Zone tax credits; new market tax credits; state brownfield tax credits; funding from the national EB-5 program, which grants green cards to foreign nationals who invest in American projects that lead to at least 10 new jobs; and community development block grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Along the way, Cornerstone and Harbor Shores spent years assembling 170 separate parcels of land into 530 contiguous acres, compared with the 160 or so for a typical 18-hole golf course.

By 2002, well before all the land had been bought and all the debris and contaminated dirt had been hauled off, there was already a detailed site plan drawn up for what would become the Harbor Shores golf course and various housing, restaurant and hotel projects.

The course opened for play in 2010. Construction on other projects has continued apace at Harbor Shores Resort, with Evergreen Development Co. LLC overseeing the building of such projects as a hotel, townhouses, single-family homes and restaurants.

From its headquarters in Benton Harbor, Evergreen has built and marketed golf resorts and mixed-use projects around the world, including Australia, Hawaii, the U.K., France, Ireland, Thailand, Brazil and Turkey. Tourist destination U.S. courses include the Sagamore Club in Noblesville, Ind., and Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando, Fla.

Jeffery Gilbertsen is CFO and COO at Evergreen Development, who was recruited to the project in its early stages, in 2008. He said his first reaction was similar to Nicklaus.’

“At the time, I thought I was insane for leaving a dream role of running international finance for a public real estate investment trust,” he jokes now. “Fortunately it seems to be working out.”

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