Residents fight to change `down and out in Benton Harbor'. Troubled by unemployment, city looks to `citizen power'

If ever a city has been down and out, Benton Harbor qualifies. What used to be a popular vacation spot for Chicagoans and a thriving center of Michigan's fruit industry now has an unemployment rate of close to 40 percent. Vacant stores line much of its main thoroughfare. About 60 percent of its residents are on some form of public assistance.

Benton Harbor and its neighbor across the river, St. Joseph, are known as Michigan's Twin Cities. They have comparable rents but the contrasts are marked. St. Joseph's population is 98 percent white, while Benton Harbor is 86 percent black, and St. Joseph's per capita income is twice as high as that in Benton Harbor.

Benton Harbor faces the kind of challenge other cities in similar straits have walked away from. But a growing number of this city's 15,000 residents and interested onlookers say they see signs of fresh vitality here and a new determination to reverse the economic decline of the last 20 years.

Michigan State University's (MSU) decision last fall, backed by a grant from Benton Harbor's Whirlpool Corporation, virtually to adopt this town is fueling much of that optimism.

While not channeling more dollars directly into the city, MSU experts offer a wide range of technical and research help, lending credibility to the city's own revitalization efforts.

Within the last year a new downtown development authority has been formed and 10 companies have either moved in or expanded here.

``Many have been watching for the right signals for a long time,'' says Alex Little, who was hired as the city's director of economic and community development a year and a half ago.

Also, there is noticeably more citizen activity in both new and existing groups. Members of three black churches, for instance, now offer tutoring four days a week to youngsters from a nearby grade school. Last year they sent a group whose behavior was exemplary to summer camp.

``It's an uphill journey, but I'm seeing a much greater sense of community pride, and I feel we're going to go forward,'' insists the Rev. Clarrissa Blackamore, pastor of the Greater Ebenezer Spiritual Temple.

Also just this week Benton Harbor is playing host to Artrain, a traveling art collection housed in four railroad cars. It is a special treat for this town with no museum of its own.

There is no easy explanation as to what exactly happened here. Certainly the loss in the 1970s of the city's auto-related industries was a key factor. An exodus of most of Benton Harbor's black middle class and white residents followed. Also low-income blacks from America's South were attracted here by Michigan's unusually high welfare and unemployment benefits.

Though federal and state funds were coming in as the city's tax base was reduced, large sums mysteriously disappeared. Whether it was crooked politics -- a charge never proven -- or an honest lack of fiscal management experience depends on whom you talk to.

Residents do agree, however, on what the city needs now: a stronger revenue base. Just to keep minimal services going, Benton Harbor city leaders have had to borrow about $500,000 a year from the state. It now owes the State of Michigan $2.5 million.

Mr. Little, a man of irrepressible enthusiasm who stresses that the city's ability to repay will increase as developers come in, has a detailed plan for the city's economic recovery. On a walk around town he tells a visitor the many vacant buildings around are not liabilities but assets that the city is buying up for development and sale.

Little points out that one developer has already converted the city's YMCA into a private health club and points out where another will begin building a riverfront hotel this summer.``This is not working with dreams -- these things can happen,'' he insists. And he says that Benton Harbor's designation in recent months as the state's only enterprise zone should help considerably.

``I'm seeing a lot of improvements here lately, and I hope the enterprise zone [designation] will really set this town going full blast,'' says Michael Govatos, as he serves up the evening's $3.95 hamburger special to a visiting reporter at the Fifth Wheel, a grill on Main Street he has owned and run for 38 years. Mr. Govatos is also one of the nine current city commissioners.

In addition to money, residents readily admit that Benton Harbor has another great need: a more united approach to its future.

``Nobody ever comes together to do anything in a united way,'' protests Bill Gaillard, executive director of Mission Basic, a nonprofit group trying to create new jobs in the area. Indeed, there is noticeable friction between some whites and blacks here and also within the black community itself as to how to proceed. ``What this city needs is one diplomatic person who is neutral and can talk to anyone -- we need something to raise the spiritual morale of the people,'' says cable TV photographer Lawrence Streeter.

Yet there are promising signs that Benton Harbor is making headway. In January a celebration in honor of Martin Luther King Day, featuring the Twin Cities Symphony Orchestra based in St. Joseph and the choirs of 22 area churches, drew 1,500 people to Benton Harbor's Lake Michigan College.

Esther Clay, a teacher who cochaired the event, says it was the first time in her more than 40 years in this area that she has seen the two communities come together for such an event. ``There was a time when it was said that the men living in St. Joe told their wives not to cross the bridge,'' she recalled.

Also new within the last few months: a lunchtime forum on Benton Harbor issues held every two weeks at Lake Michigan College. ``It's not a place to argue but a place to hear,'' says college president Anne Mulder.

``It's an opportunity to speak to both sides who've never really gotten together because of all the hurts . . . of the past -- the important thing is for the networking to begin,'' adds the Rev. William Moore, pastor of Benton Harbor's First Congregational Church.

Although Michigan State University has helped in a variety of areas from zoning to marketing, its greatest contribution may be to help bridge gaps between individuals and factions who do not trust one another.

``It's hard to get people to work together when the pie is shrinking . . . but we're perceived as neutral and objective -- people can't afford not to work with us,'' notes John Schweitzer, acting director of MSU's Center for Urban Affairs. ``We don't expect to see changes overnight, but I think we can make a positive difference.''

Adds Joseph Darden, the MSU dean of urban affairs programs: ``I think there's a feeling now that something better can happen -- the potential is clearly there.''

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