DePaul alum becomes mayor of Benton Harbor, Michigan

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Marcus Muhammad, left, stands with his wife Abisayo as he is sworn in by former Chief Justice of Berrien County Judge Alfred Butzbaugh Dec. 23. (Photo courtesy of SAM HOWZIT)

Marcus Muhammad, left, stands with his wife Abisayo as he is sworn in by former Chief Justice of Berrien County Judge Alfred Butzbaugh Dec. 23. (Photo courtesy of SAM HOWZIT)

In September 1973, when the Sears Tower was formally opened, Mayor Richard J. Daley spoke before the nearly 1400 ft. building to give a commemorative opening speech. In 1968, as the building was facing challenges and Sears Roebuck considered moving to the suburbs like so many other businesses, Daley stepped in.

Having the world’s tallest building didn’t last long, but the story of how the tower came to be serves as a point of inspiration for Marcus Muhammad, a former men’s basketball guard known as Marcus Singer during his college years, who now looks to Daley for inspiration as he begins to lead Benton Harbor, Michigan, his hometown. Drawing on Daley’s history with businesses in the city, Muhammad is laying out a plan to work with businesses and the communities within the town that combines lessons learned on and off the court.

“My first leadership position was captain of the basketball team. So a lot of leadership skills that (coach Ray) instilled were present in practices and in games, as well as study halls,” Muhammad said of his time on the team. “All of those principles that I learned from coach Joe (Meyer), as well as the athletic department and a wonderful host of professors and others served as a recipe and a starting point for where I am today.”

Muhammad played basketball from 1993 to 1997 under coach Joey Meyer, son of Ray Meyer. During his four years with coach Joey the team went 16-11 for the 1993-1994 season, 17-11 in the 1994-1995 season, 12-17 for 1995-1996 and 3-23 in 1996-1997.

His homecoming came not long after graduating. He returned again to coach basketball and found a community in need of leadership and help, as well as an opportunity to make a difference — something he credits to DePaul. Life after graduating included many jobs that also helped Muhammad prepare for his mayorship.

He returned to Benton Harbor to teach special education. He coached basketball, and it was during this time that he mentored Wilson Chandler, DePaul’s most recent basketball player to make it to the NBA.

He returned to Chicago for two years, teaching at the Muhammad University of Islam before heading back to Benton Harbor again to lead the basketball team for six years, going where he felt he was needed and most beneficial to his community.

The need for change and leadership stuck with him, however. Sensing this, Muhammad began his run in politics in 2009, though he credits 2010 as the real start of his political career. He was elected city commissioner in 2009, and became mayor pro-temp of Benton Harbor from 2010-2012.

He was inaugurated to his current post in December.

“I learned a lot about community at DePaul, and coming back to the community that I started from was always a burning desire in my heart,” Muhammad said. “Through my education and my basketball experience, family and community were always placed at the front of my DePaul experience.”

During his first 100 days, Muhammad plans to meet with the Cornerstone Alliance, which serves as a chamber of commerce for the city and the surrounding Berrien County area, as well as businesses, big and small, to get their ideas on how to make the community more business and investor friendly. He’s also established a 10-point plan to encourage economic growth and collaboration.

“We have a lot of development and great things taking shape. So I’m not only optimistic, but also realistic in that this is a great opportunity in front of me,” Muhammad said.

Optimism and opportunities aside, Muhammad does face trouble in a few sectors, such as businesses, employment and education. The 2010 census showed Benton Harbor had the lowest per capita income compared to other cities in Michigan — about $9,000 — and increasing economic hardships for the city mean that not only is the state monitoring economic movements, but so are news outlets around the country. Of the slowly declining population, 47.4 percent live below the poverty line, according to the 2010-2014 American community survey. In April 2010, former Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed an emergency financial manager to help the city right its finances, a move that was overturned in 2014.

Teamwork and optimism are the route Muhammad has chosen to confronting the issues. He hopes to get 10 new businesses per year during his tenure. With an influx of Chicagoans who travel to the city just for vacation, pulling in new businesses may not be hard. Muhammad also hopes to work with other groups around the city, much like Daley, to boost the economy and quality of life for those in the city.

“We’re going to work with the mayor to look at what’s worked and what hasn’t so we can create a new strategic plan,” Rob Cleveland, director of the Cornerstone Alliance. “It’s important to form a level of trust. Though these communities are all interdependent, we all want to make Berrien county a great county and that means listening and meeting (with businesses and leaders).”

While Cornerstone Alliance is working on meeting businesses and the economic needs, other organizations, including the Southwest Strategic Leadership Council, works to address quality of life issues as they pertain to the city.

Benton is also seeing fewer high school students walk across the stage and fewer still are going on to college and getting bachelor’s degrees — 23 percent of the Berrien County area residents have bachelor’s degrees, according to data from the council’s site.

“You can only have economic growth when you have an educated populace, and the school district has been struggling for years,” Jacqui Winship, executive strategy and development advisor of the council, said. “Mayor Muhammad’s plan aligns with the council’s goals, and he recognizes that job growth and education are important for the economy (for the city and the county).”

As mayor, Muhammad plans to work with the council in an effort to address these problems.

“There isn’t one unique strategy for this, but multiple unique strategies executed at the same time,” Bob Harrison, who has worked on the council’s education and talent development strategies, said. “There are huge opportunities for the county that we may not have fully perceived. We have a lot of assets and we can build on the workforce and make sure people have all they need to grow.”

The city has also seen an exodus of businesses over the past few decades, similar to what happened right before the construction of the Sears tower began. CEOs, desiring cheaper real estate and chances to grow their businesses physically and economically, left the city.  Though the economic and situation surrounding the construction of the Sears Tower, now known as the Willis Tower, is different from that of Benton Harbor’s, the theme — pushing through adversity, playing to your strengths and finding people to offset weak points to build a stronger team — remains the same.

As for now plans for the future are falling into place. Harbor shores, a golf development that Benton Harbor shares with St. Joseph’s, a neighboring town, will host the senior PGA tour in May and Whirlpool, a major corporation headquartered in Benton Harbor, is part of a push for jobs. Though the state of Benton Harbor’s economics is in faulty shape, Muhammad’s confidence in his role and the team around him may reinstate the city’s former motto as “Little Chicago.”

“As a 21st century mayor you have to be aware of (changes and the future), and help your city prepare,” Muhammad said. “I want to be the people’s mayor. I’ve been entrusted with awesome responsibility and I hope to help.”