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Free Press columnist: Whirlpool corporation may leave Benton harbor, Mich.

On the eve of a planned demonstration against the suspension of local rule in Benton Harbor, Free Press business columnist Tom Walsh warns that the hassles and embarrassment of recent political tumult may drive the locally-headquartered Whirlpool corporation out of town.

Following a tour of the new World of Whirlpool customer experience center in Chicago and an interview with CEO Jeff Fettig, Walsh writes that Michigan is in danger of losing Whirlpool.

Though Whirlpool is in the process of modernizing its headquarters complex in Benton Harbor, the nearly 100-year-old appliance giant may chose to relocate, he writes.

Can such loyalty to the historic hometown last, though, if Benton Harbor becomes a recurring national sad-sack story of fiscal insolvency, dysfunctional politics and racial strife?

The city has recently received unflattering attention from Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Even its annual Blossomtime parade last month was marred by protests against Gov. Rick Snyder and local officials, stemming from controversy over actions by Joe Harris, the city’s state-appointed emergency manager…

Jeff Fettig, Whirlpool’s CEO, talked last week about his company’s values — integrity, respect, a spirit of winning — being in lockstep with the southwest Michigan community where it’s based. But when I asked him about Benton Harbor’s chronic fiscal woes, and about the city’s loopy officials initially balking at accepting $3.8 million in donations to help out, he lamented the city’s “outdated political structure” and the actions of a few local “rabble-rousers.”

Today’s Whirlpool executives may insist that southwest Michigan is their corporate home — and they may mean every word of it. Today.

But it sure is easy to imagine a future Whirlpool headquarters in downtown Chicago if Benton Harbor doesn’t get its act together.

Cities or states that make it a hassle or an embarrassment to be a corporate citizen won’t have any left.

The state of Michigan has tried to keep Whirlpool by giving it millions of dollars in tax breaks and supporting Harbor Shores, a company-backed project that built an elite private golf course on Benton Harbor’s public lakefront.

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