As the Benton Harbor, Mich. property celebrates its 10-year anniversary, what was once more than 550 acres of forsaken land, abandoned factories and lost manufacturing jobs is now a distant memory.
Harbor Shores Resort in Benton Harbor, Mich. is much more than the Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course and The Inn at Harbor Shores. It is the realization of a vision made possible by $900 million in strategic investments and a collective array of relationships and community partners, including Whirlpool Corp.
Joshua Doxtator, PGA, the resort’s General Manager, credits Whirlpool and its vision and continued commitment to the community as the reason for Harbor Shores’ existence and its success in now celebrating 10 years on the shores of Lake Michigan.
“When industry left town in the 1970s and ‘80s, the area was riddled with abandoned factories and ultimately waste sites,” Doxtator says. “Benton Harbor has been home to Whirlpool since 1911, and the leadership within the corporation stood by one of their values by ‘doing the right thing.’
“Ultimately Harbor Shores is a testament to that value,” he adds. “Whirlpool committed to cleaning up the area and, with the help of various local and state organizations, developed an environment that offered opportunities to stay, live, work and play.”
For example, the 14th hole on the golf course alone had enough waste removed to fill a football field 70 feet high.
The course, which plays host to the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship every two years, sits on the same site where 6,000 manufacturing jobs were lost over an 18-month period in the 1980s. The empty buildings sat on nearly 3 million sq. ft. of industrial materials and contaminated soil. In 2008, that property had little state-equalized value; by 2017, the same land had a taxable value of nearly $74 million.
Harbor Shores also hosts the Whirlpool Community Charity Golf Event that attracts 630 players over two days, raising more than $2 million every year. Those funds assist The First Tee of Benton Harbor, the Boys and Girls Club of Benton Harbor, and local schools.
“To say the relationship is strong would be an understatement,” says Doxtator. “Without this event, funding for local youth development would be difficult, and so many young lives would not be impacted. We are extremely fortunate and blessed to have the devotion of a global organization in our community.”
The charity event, says Jackson Davison, Harbor Shores’ Golf Operations Manager, is all about the kids. “These kids are the future of this community, and being able to reach them and give back in such a positive way provides a great deal of satisfaction, especially when it involves getting the kids into the game of golf,” he says.
The golf course plays a tremendous part in supporting the community by providing jobs, increasing a tax base significantly from zero, and supporting local youth programs, Davison adds.
“Harbor Shores is not just a golf course. It saved a piece of land from the ruins it was in,” he says. “A piece of land that was completely inaccessible, contaminated and abandoned by previous businesses. If it wasn’t for the vision and the efforts from some of the local business leaders, this land would have been forgotten.”
The Harbor Shores property also provides recreation such as parks, walking trails, access to water activities in the Paw Paw River, and development for homes and other local businesses.
“One of the most significant impacts would be the beach at Jean Klock Park,” Davison says. “This was an area that was completely trashed, abandoned and never maintained. Harbor Shores committed to revitalizing such a beautiful piece of the lakeshore, and also committed to maintaining the entire park.”
Now, Jean Klock Park Beach is completely maintained by Golf Course Superintendent Nate Herman and his Course and Grounds team at Harbor Shores. “They do a fantastic job and make it a very enjoyable destination for all,” Davison says.
Herman has been in the industry for 20 years and at Harbor Shores since 2017. The park isn’t the only portion of the property open to the community, he notes.
“Quite honestly, the entire piece of property is available to the public, with the intention of the facility as a whole being the central point of the revitalization of this community,” Herman says. “It took some time to adjust my perspective [in that way]—however, whether it is the Jean Klock Park Beach, the trails, or the golf course, our goal is provide our guests and members with the best experience possible in a financially responsible manner, and including those who utilize the facility outside of golf.”
The massive scale of the Harbor Shores property leads to some unique challenges for Herman and his team. “This property provides multiple daily challenges, primarily due to the size of the property,” he says. “A typical 18-hole facility averages between 120 and 140 acres. But we are on 530 acres with three very different micro-environments. The travel time alone can be problematic, on top of the wear and tear to the equipment [and] management of the staff.”
Maintaining and growing visitor traffic is an issue for properties across the country. Doxtator takes a two-pronged approach to helping Harbor Shores thrive.
“First, people need to know you exist,” he explains. “[That requires] really taking the time to analyze your data, define your guest, comprehend barriers and ultimately use all available resources to go after target markets.
“Understanding where your guests are coming from, and why, is important—but delivering on the promises that you promote is vital to the sustainability of the resort,” Doxtator adds. “Fulfilling expectations might keep you in business—but exceeding them daily, with every guest, allows the opportunity for growth and retention.”
Once guests are on site, the goal is to keep them engaged as long as possible.
“Our entire team has a basic set of principles, called ‘Top 4 at the Shore’ [see box, pg. 17], that equip them for success and encourage them to create relationships with guests,” Doxtator says. “They carry a card with these four principles and this quote: ‘We exist for our guests; make them remember you for something good today.’
“Our team owns this—and in return, I believe, our repeat business and new business continues to grow exponentially.”
Situated in a region that has seen more than its fair share of unemployment, Doxtator says staffing issues for Harbor Shores don’t necessarily come in the form of hiring, but retention.“In the hospitality business, keeping your team engaged, proud and ultimately loyal is extremely difficult,” he says. “I was fortunate to come up in the business in a heavy culture-driven environment. I understood early the importance of people, and of learning how to communicate and lead based on sincerely engaging and including them.
“Culture is important to me and our team,” he continues. “Regardless of position, every team member on site should know their role and its importance to the success of Harbor Shores. The dishwasher is just as important as the GM—if a guest receives a dirty plate, how does that impact our business and guest?
Providing value in each position is vital and celebrating the successes is important, Doxtator adds.
“I’m big on our team ‘knowing the score,’” he says. “Each department has an active scoreboard that shows how we’re doing, and it’s updated daily. This helps our team engage and understand they’re an important factor to our overall success. Regardless of how much competitive spirit someone has, nobody likes to lose; by actively being reminded of the score, we try harder and gain loyalty among our team—because we can’t win if everyone doesn’t play their position.”
Whether guests are dining at The Inn or the golf course while on property, Executive Chef Calie Jean, who joined the resort in February 2020, is charged with directing their culinary experience. With prior experience at ski resorts in the Colorado Rockies, Jean says there was a little bit of a learning curve when it came to understanding what the needs of the guests would be. “A lot of time was dedicated to talking with our members and golf professionals, to get an idea of what their favorite food experience is while enjoying the game of golf,” she says.
“My goal was to create a menu that accentuates their favorite game,” she adds. “Our offerings highlight simple favorites made with local ingredients and house-made products. The simplicity of the menu allows us to focus more on daily specials that celebrate seasonal fare, so we can offer a new experience to our guests each time they visit.”
While diners would naturally expect to find great food at Plank’s Tavern on the River, which is located at the Inn, and at the golf course’s restaurant, The Grille, it may surprise some that on-course options are nearly as plentiful.
“Our on-course dining options available at Jack’s Place [the course’s turn house] and from the beverage cart boast the same simple freshness that you can find at the clubhouse, including a house-roasted beef sandwich with horseradish Havarti spread and grilled chicken Caesar wrap [with house-made Caesar dressing],” Jean says.
Coping with COVID
Like every other property, Harbor Shores was not immune to the global pandemic. A clear and open approach kept members and guest informed and comfortable.
“I think our biggest focus in coping with COVID was doing our best to create a genuinely safe environment for our members and guests,” Doxtator says. “Communicating what we were doing to ensure their safety, and following through on sanitation procedure and protocols, was a priority.
“We recently conducted a survey among our members and it was resounding that our efforts didn’t go unnoticed,” he continues. “It falls in line with the core of who we are—making every guest feel like they’re the most important person on property every single day.”
At the golf course, Davison’s staff placed a premium on sanitation routines, specifically with the golf cars, GPS and accessories.
“Our Guest Service team sanitized and cleaned the cars in heavy detail after each use, and we made sure this was the priority each day,” Davison says. “Although there was a high cost associated with these practices, it helped to ensure a safe environment for our members and guests and allowed them to enjoy their experience.”
On the Horizon
A decade in operation is really just a blip on the radar for many clubs, and the future of Harbor Shores remains unwritten. Doxtator, for one, has an idea of what may lie down the road, but isn’t quick to make predictions.
“I’ve learned to not limit yourself by trying to predict the future,” he says. “Yes, we have plans in place to expand on the offerings at Harbor Shores and ultimately become the one-stop shop for everything resort-, golf- and entertainment-related.
“Our focus is to engage guests year-round, but how do we do that differently from everyone else?” he adds. “There is plenty of opportunity on the horizon, and as we continue to see visitors from all over the Midwest, we will invest in the areas that matter.
“Regardless of what we do next, we will make sure that every person who visits the resort understands why it exists,” Doxator adds. “There are some great stories of how golf was good for a community, but there is none greater than our story.”
At a Glance:
Harbor Shores Resort
Location: Benton Harbor, Mich.
Golf Course Design: Jack Nicklaus Signature Course
Annual Golf Rounds: 15,000
Main Clubhouse Size: 7,360 sq. ft.
General Manager: Joshua Doxtator, PGA
Golf Operations Manager: Jackson Davison
Golf Course Superintendent: Nate R. Herman
Executive Chef: Calie Jean
Director of Service and Engagement: Christine Clayton
Director of Instruction: Ross Smith
The entire team at Harbor Shores Resort carries a card with this basic set of principles, called ‘Top 4 at the Shore,’ to help equip them for success and encourage them to create relationships with guests, says General Manager Joshua Doxtator:
> 10/10 Rule—Engage and initiate connection with our guests within 10 feet or 10 seconds.
> Leave a L.A.S.T.ing Impression – Listen with sincerity; Apologize regardless of fault; Solve within reason and provide an equitable solution; Thank the guest for their feedback.
> Develop and Anticipate Attitudes – Know the desire of the guest before they ask. Providing directions and introductions are vital to their service experience.
> Give them I.N.F.O. – Inform the guest of the expectation; Never assume they know where they’re going or who they will see next; Follow their lead; Offer to take them there.