Jean Klock Beach
Jean Klock Beach Credit: Jacob Vanderheyden

Compared to Michigan, Chicago offers bigger, better, and more of many (OK, most) things. But Michigan’s Harbor Country, as it’s known, has bigger, prettier, and more impressive beaches—unless it’s the Oak Street scene you’re going for.

A mere 60 miles across the lake from Chicago and just west of the Paw Paw River, Benton Harbor’s Jean Klock Beach is a broad expanse of fine sand backed by lofty dunes and surrounded by the 76-acre Jean Klock Park. From 1891 to 1971, nearby Silver Beach had an amusement park that covered 20 acres along the lake at the St. Joseph River with a carousel, thrill rides, a boardwalk, water slides, and a ballroom. But after the rust belt manufacturing exodus began in the 1970s, the park was razed in 1975—and Jean Klock fell victim to years of disuse, neglect, vandalism, crime, and a long descent into blight.

However, an agreement with a developer who leased 22 acres of parkland from the city provided Jean Klock with a face-lift in 2009, and beachgoers are slowly rediscovering the pristine strand.

You can thank Mother Nature for Benton Harbor’s striking landscape; those truckloads of sand dumped in Chicago every summer get swept eastward every winter, eventually forming broad sweeping vistas and towering dunes on the other side of the lake. The abundance of sand makes for warmer, shallower water—and more dangerous water, too. The greater amount of sand means more sandbars and the breaks in them that cause riptides.

Benton Harbor’s civic waters have proven turbulent as well. Its struggles with poverty (the average per capita income of $8,965 makes it the poorest city in Michigan), racial tension and political frustration (culminating in several riots), and abysmal finances have landed it the nickname “Benton Horror.”

But the Jean Klock renovation—coupled with the new 18-hole Golf Club at Harbor Shores and the adjacent planned 700-unit, mixed-use Harbor Shores development—is poised to reverse the town’s downslide. Supporters see the park and housing development as a ticket to job creation, higher real estate values, much-needed tax revenue, and an influx of tourists. That’s sure to be the case in 2012 and 2014, when the Golf Club at Harbor Shores hosts the PGA Senior Championship.

If the redeveloped beach works as an economic stimulator, it wouldn’t be the first time an area beach overhaul spurred urban renewal. Benton Harbor’s neighbor to the south, St. Joseph, revitalized its downtown area after Berrien County began renovating Silver Beach.

“We needed a game changer, and that’s what Jean Klock and Harbor Shores is,” says Wendy Dant Chesser, president of Cornerstone Alliance, a nonprofit formed in 1991 when the area’s Community Economic Development Corporation and Twin Cities Chamber of Commerce combined. “It’s a stimulator for the rest of the city.”

It’s also a charming, underpopulated beach—at least until the masses arrive.