Municipal Coups
December 16, 2011, 04:11 AM
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Hole 7

I've long been interested in the topic of municipal coups, in which somebody overthrows a corrupt and incompetent local government and then afterwards, everybody acts as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary happened. For example, the feds setting up Mayor Marion Barry of Washington D.C. in 1990. After WWII, returning veterans organized to rid more than a few hometowns of corrupt mayors and police, much like Frodo and friends do in the Scouring of the Shire conclusion to Lord of the Rings. San Francisco and New Orleans had major coups in the 19th Century.

The NYT Magazine has an article on an expensive new golf course, hotel, and housing development, Harbor Shores, that has opened in the micro-Detroit of Benton Harbor, a black slum city on Lake Michigan a couple of hours from the South Side of Chicago. As Rachel Maddow often complains, the state of Michigan suspended democracy in Benton Harbor and turned all responsibility over to an appointed city autocrat. The Whirlpool Company, which maintains its headquarters in Benton Harbor, has promoted the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course (greens fee for non-residents on summer weekends: $150), which will host the 2012 Senior PGA Championship, and the gentrifying Arts District. The writer interviews a quasi-homeless former city councilman who thinks, with some reason, that what's going on is a municipal coup.

This development is another high-low team-up:

Given Benton Harbor’s unfavorable history and demographics, no private developer would likely be willing to take on such an ambitious project there. But there was another way: Robinson’s group, along with other nonprofits supported by Whirlpool, could secure enough federal and state grant money to help remediate the land, build the golf course and at least get Harbor Shores off the ground. The project’s complicated financing deal closed in May 2008, right around the time that the national real-estate market crashed.

On the Thursday morning that we played Harbor Shores, the course looked virtually empty.

The West Coast of Michigan is a great place for golf because the steady winds blow cool air across Lake Michigan, making it vastly more pleasant in summer than Chicago's suburbs, and that has piled up big sand dunes along the shore. There's nothing golfers love more than playing through sand dunes with a view of big water.

Until the last couple of decades, this coastline has been underserved with quality golf courses. Alister Mackensie designed the fantastic Crystal Downs course in Frankfort, MI in the 1920s, but almost nothing else was built on the forested dunes until the last 15 years. Back in 1990, I bought a a couple of dozen topographic maps of the southwest Michigan coastline and drove up and down looking for a piece of undeveloped shoreline that I could put a team of investors together to buy and turn into a great course. But, just about every bit of cliff along Lake Michigan had cabins on it, so I left it to more enterprising people to do the heavy lifting of buying out existing homeowners. About a half dozen spectacular courses such as Arcadia Bluffs have gone up along this coastline since then at vast expense.

My question about this new development in Benton Harbor would be, however: are all the responsible grown-ups crazy? Has anybody made a nickel off of a new golf course development in the last ten years (outside of China?). Back in 2005 a California real estate developer I know told he he'd never invest in a golf course-centric housing development again, and I can't see much that would have made him change his mind since then.

The sad secret of golf is that it's a youngish man's game, not the game for retirees that everybody thinks. It peaked economically in the 1980s and 1990s when Baby Boomers were between, say, 25 and 50. There was a huge overbuilding of outstanding new golf courses that came online about a decade ago, and times have been tough for golf course owners ever since.

Moreover, how does a resort provide work for the black underclass? The article says:

This is the competing narrative of what’s going on in Benton Harbor: It’s being converted into a resort town for wealthy weekenders and Whirlpool employees — that, when all is said and done, its struggling black population will either be driven out by the development or reduced to low-wage jobs cleaning hotel rooms, carrying golf bags or cutting grass.
As I pointed out in 2003, practically no black guys have taken up caddying since the Civil Rights era. Only Hal Sutton of all tour golfers still had a black caddie. The usual caddie on tour might be a former college golf teammate of the pro who dropped out of law school. Similarly,

Poor urban African-Americans hate servile work, so is the resort, assuming it ever gets any guests, going to have to bring in immigrants to be maids?

And who are the target customers? Judging by the models in the ads, they're aiming for a half black clientele. I think that would be interesting — is there a large enough black middle class in Chicago to support a heavily black resort? The number of black men who play golf in Chicago is by no means small, and they tend to be big spenders when they play, but I've never heard of them flocking to one single upscale course. Usually, huge cities have one municipal course that is, by common agreement, the black course where blacks are socially dominant: Chester Washington in LA., Joe Louis in Chicago, etc. In the Northeast, there are a number of summer home communities, such as The Oaks on Martha's Vineyard, that have been upper middle class black for generations, but I'm not familiar with new golf or beach destinations for upscale blacks forming in recent decades.