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G.O. Williams & Associates

OUR RESULTS > BENTON HARBOR

Under the threat of state and federal lawsuits, Harbor Shores Community Development Inc. contacted G.O. Williams looking for someone to serve as a bridge between community activists and the developers. In early 2007, the Friends of Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor approached G.O. Williams & Associates L.L.C. principal, Guy Williams, to ask for his support in opposing proposed development at the park. Community members were concerned about the effect of the plan on the park's natural resource assets and about the prospect of turning over city-owned land for development by a private entity with little-or-no benefit to the local community. The land in question had been deeded to the city in 1917 by John and Carrie Klock, and the Friends group worried that the proposed use went against the Klock's wishes that the lakefront "always be preserved in its natural state and be a playground for the children and a bathing beach for the people."

The Friends group reached out to Guy because of his track-record of support for natural resource and park preservation; specifically, they had heard about his recent success in helping to raise over $800K to protect a park in Novi, MI. However, upon attending an initial site visit with community groups, Guy was shocked at the state of the park: the difficultly of access to the park's famed wetlands due to overgrown invasive species, the lack of usable facilities like restrooms and benches, and the general disrepair of the public use areas. After learning more about the development company's plans, Guy became convinced that there was a way to leverage the private interest in investment for the benefit of the community.

Challenge

Harbor Shores needed to mak e the development plans more transparent, to engage with the community to draw out their fears, concerns, and hopes for the development and then find ways to incorporate this feedback into the actual plans and project implementation. Given the long-standing negative feelings towards the project, this was a complex and sensitive context that required someone with pre-existing relationships, reputation, and experience.

Solution

Before agreeing to the project, Guy Williams conducted an independent assessment of the project's environmental and community impacts. Guy agreed to take on the project only after working with third-party experts to determine that the project had the potential to significantly improve the natural resource value of the park and produce community benefits like jobs, a safer recreation area, and revenue for the city.

Immediately following, Guy began to conduct a series of over 25 interviews with key members of the public and started to analyze and respond to the extensive public comments that had been submitted at local hearings. He maintained close relationships with the community groups and individuals who had first reached out to him for help in opposing the development and who continued to be very vocal in their opposition, and also reached out to other members in the community who would be directly affected by the development. Throughout the process, Guy was able to highlight community priorities such as creating jobs and recreation opportunities for local youth, preserving the existing wetlands and the integrity of the sand dunes, and restoring and maintaining key public areas like a concrete observation deck which had fallen into disrepair.

The Harbor Shores project moved forward. The golf course celebrated its grand opening in August 2010, but more importantly, the development group made good on its promises and invested over $3 million just on park renovations, including bathroom, parking, and pavilion improvements as well as the development of a trail system which leads to viewing platforms next to the wetlands which had previously been inaccessible to the public. The project preserved the marsh and the dunes and maintained the park as a community space where organizations and individuals can come to celebrate special events or simply enjoy the lush, natural surroundings. As a result of the improvements, visits to the park had increased dramatically, both from out-of-town guests and from local residents.

On a recent visit to Benton Harbor, Guy met two local teens who had been hired to manage the entrance booth at the park. Upon explaining his involvement in the project and some of the controversy surrounding the development, he asked the teens what they thought about the changes. Both were unequivocally positive. Not only had the development given them both a summer job, but the park was cleaner and nicer to visit.

More about the partnering organizations: Harbor Shores Community Development Inc. is a non-profit entity formed to serve as a master developer for the Harbor Shores project. As a corporation, HSCRI is owned by three non-profit organizations that have established relationships and project successes within our communities: Whirlpool Foundation, the Alliance for World-Class Communities and Cornerstone Alliance. To learn more about the development group and about the Benton Harbor project, visit www.harborshoresdevelopment.org.

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"Guy helped us better understand how our project pertained to environmental justice issues and helped us to utilize community input and to partner with entities who were originally opposed to the project. His presence brought a calming element to the entire process and helped us proceed based on balanced and rational study of the issue from all directions."

Marcus Robinson, President
Consortium for Community Development

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