Will A Golf Course Save Benton Harbor's Economy?

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The Whirlpool Corp., the largest home appliance maker in the world, wants to improve its hometown of Benton Harbor, Mich. Executives are leveraging a PGA-approved golf course to try to turn the city into a tourist destination. But many residents aren't convinced becoming a tourist town is the best way to create jobs.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

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Benton Harbor, Michigan, is hosting the Senior PGA Championship, though the economically troubled city may seem like an unlikely place to hold a golf tournament. Benton Harbor is currently in receivership. And it is home to the Whirlpool Corporation, which has moved much of its manufacturing and jobs out of town and overseas. As Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith reports, Whirlpool executives are hoping the golf tournament will give the town an economic boost.

LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: Marnina Miller is guarding a row of security radios in a temporary trailer at the new Harbor Shores golf course. She's one of more than 260 temporary workers at the Senior PGA Championship. She's spent all of her 22 years in Benton Harbor.

MARNINA MILLER: I've never seen so many big wigs here. I can't compare it to anything else.

SMITH: A steady stream of tour buses, and a fleet of silver Mercedes with the PGA logo, cruise through town. Sometimes, you can see people inside the cars point at boarded-up buildings as they pass by.

In 2010, the average household in Benton Harbor earned just $17,000 a year. The golf course sits in sharp contrast to the city's poverty. But near the golf course, there are plans for condos, two luxury hotels and a marina.

Whirlpool executives came up with this concept in the 1980s. They wanted to turn more than 3 million square feet of old manufacturing space, near the Lake Michigan shore, into a destination for golfers. The project became a reality despite the recession, numerous protests, and a number of legal challenges.

So this week, the backers are celebrating. They enjoyed complimentary glasses of wine and savory hors d'oeuvres at an invitation-only reception earlier this week.

MAYOR JAMES HIGHTOWER: This is absolutely fantastic.

SMITH: That's Benton Harbor's mayor, James Hightower.

HIGHTOWER: I remember riding through this site when I was a little kid on a bicycle, going to Jean Klock Park, and it was all factories. Over the years, they shut down. It became a dilapidated - just a total eyesore; rusty buildings. And now, to see it like it is today - it's transformation.

SMITH: Almost everyone agrees that area looks a lot better. And most people are happy the proceeds from the non-profit development are reinvested into programs for kids here. But people here tend to be with Whirlpool because of the economic investment it brings; or they're against Whirlpool, a super successful company they say is taking advantage of a city that's desperate for cash and jobs.

THE REV. EDWARD PINKNEY: I would like to see Whirlpool pack up and leave here.

SMITH: Rev. Edward Pinkney is a longtime activist. He's leading silent marches - to protest Harbor Shores, Whirlpool and the PGA - every day this week. He's outspoken and controversial, even among Benton Harbor residents. Today, he's wearing his signature T-shirt for the news cameras. It reads: Whirlpool commits crimes against humanity.

PINKNEY: Whirlpool - have outsourced jobs, closed factories. And that's a major crime.

SMITH: Pinkney says there's no way a golf course and a luxury housing development can make up for the manufacturing jobs Whirlpool moved overseas. But Pinkney's protests have been poorly attended, compared with protests last year against a state takeover of the practically bankrupt city government.

Senior PGA Championship director Jeff Hintz is unfazed by the idea of protests. He says they're not uncommon at national sporting events. And he says pro golfers are talking about the unique design of the Jack Nicklaus signature course.

JEFF HINTZ: Jack Nicklaus is really the, you know, he's the best golfer in the history of the game. And anytime you have Jack Nicklaus, the brand, tied to - you know, anything that he does, especially a golf course, people want to play it.

SMITH: The Senior PGA Championship, and thousands of tourists, pack up Sunday. But as development continues here, the event will return to Benton Harbor in 2014.

For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith.

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