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Federal funds add to support for Benton Harbor-area ecosystem restoration

NOAA backs Ox Creek restoration project with $975,000 grant

A $975,000 grant from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the latest support announced for a transformational Southwest Michigan ecosystem restoration project whose multiple partners include the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

The Southwest Michigan Planning Commission (SWMPC) received the NOAA Coastal Habitat Restoration and Resilience Grant for Underserved Communities on behalf of the City of Benton Harbor for the Ox Creek Corridor Ecosystem Restoration Project. Ox Creek runs through the city and neighboring Benton Charter Township.

The grant will help project planners develop a habitat restoration plan for the Ox Creek corridor and build capacity within the city to provide project management, community outreach and engagement, and coalition-building to achieve the community’s vision to restore and revitalize the creek corridor. The SWMPC will coordinate with the city to hire an administrator to help build a coalition of residents and local organizations, conduct community outreach and engagement, develop a habitat restoration plan that incorporates public input, and implement two pilot habitat restoration projects.

Ox Creek, a tributary of the Paw Paw River, passes through the city and township in Berrien County on its way to Lake Michigan. It links the city’s downtown with neighborhoods and commercial corridors. In 2021, Mayor Marcus Muhammad and the Benton Harbor City Commission set revitalization of Ox Creek as one of the underserved city’s highest economic and recreational development priorities. The city’s vision includes creating a nonmotorized trail along Ox Creek connecting the downtown to the largest retail area in southwest Michigan along I-94/Pipestone Street/Napier Avenue, with Hall Park as a trailhead. Plans include bike paths, lighted walkways, pedestrian bridges, outdoor classrooms, and new commercial development and housing opportunities.

“The Ox Creek restoration and revitalization project provides an opportunity to build meaningful collaborative partnerships with state, federal, and local partners to maximize benefits of state and federal funding for Great Lakes ecosystem restoration, local capacity building, and community revitalization to create transformational opportunities for an underserved environmental justice coastal community,” said Emily Finnell, Great Lakes senior advisor and strategist with EGLE’s Office of the Great Lakes (OGL). Since May 2021, the OGL has been working with city of Benton Harbor officials to help connect, convene, and coordinate multiple state, federal, and local partners to support the city’s vision to restore and revitalize the Ox Creek corridor. 

Long-term creek restoration will include addressing nonpoint source pollution, flooding, habitat restoration, and contamination at two former industrial sites; stopping and cleaning up illegal dumping; and improving public access. Ox Creek’s degradation over decades is an example of environmental injustice through industry closure, neglect, and poor stormwater management throughout the watershed, which extends eastward into the rural areas of Berrien County. Restoration creates the potential for significant positive impact on the community through its recreational potential and as a catalyst for economic development.

The city has hired a team from the University of Michigan’s (U-M) Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning to engage local residents and help the community develop and articulate a vision for revitalization and a framework for future development along the creek corridor. EGLE profiled the effort in the 2022 Michigan State of the Great Lakes Report. In addition to the OGL, partners include EGLE’s Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate, Water Resources Division, and Brownfield Site Assessment Program; the SWMPC; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Technical Assistance to Brownfields program.

Additional recent funding includes:

  • A $3 million fiscal year 2023 federal budget allocation to the city, administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to restore and revitalize Ox Creek including building trails, pedestrian bridges, and bike paths. A congressional directed spending request submitted through former U.S. Rep. Fred Upton’s office led to the funding.
  • An allocation from the $2 million EPA Brownfield Assessment Grant to EGLE’s Remediation and Redevelopment Division Brownfield Section for four target areas including sites within the city of Benton Harbor. The city and partners have identified eligible sites and properties for assessment along Ox Creek. Funding also will support an inventory of potential brownfield sites for future assessment activity.
  • A $957,000 grant to the city from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Spark Grants program to renovate existing facilities in Hall Park, the city’s oldest park, and offer new community recreational opportunities.
  • Funding for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hydrologic study of the Ox Creek corridor for floodplain management. Initial survey work for the entire Ox Creek corridor will begin in May.
  • A $27,400 grant to the Berrien County Conservation District from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Great Lakes Restoration Initiative-Cooperative Weed Management Area to restore approximately 3,000 feet of riparian zone and six acres of upland, wetland, and floodplain habitat for invasive species control in Hall Park.