BENTON HARBOR — Most of the people who came to the record-breaking Berrien County land auction Tuesday were looking for a bargain and a good investment.

One man came to give something away.

“In today’s society these kinds of actions create unity, cooperation and help,” explained Michael Kahwaji of his decision to purchase a vacant lot and donate it to the African-American History and Literature Gallery in Benton Harbor, for use as a community and sculpture garden. “Everybody needs help.”

Kahwaji was among the 192 registered bidders who came to the D.A.N.K. Club to purchase 121 foreclosed properties, both record numbers. Last year there were 105 bidders who bought 44 properties.

In all, they bid $1.6 million, by far the highest number ever collected, according to Berrien County Treasurer Bret Witkowski.

Bidders were lined up outside the door at 8:30 a.m., and Witkowski had to open up the back room of the club to accommodate the crowd. That was the first time that has happened in 20 years, he said.

Kahwaji wasn’t the highest bidder, but he stood out for other reasons. He was the sole bidder on the lot at 697 Broadway in Benton Harbor, paying $645.

It was a happy accident that Kahwaji even came upon the property and its neighbors, Emanuel “Mac” Brown and his wife, Sharon, who opened their history center next door last year in a former church at 725 Broadway.

In 2017 Kahwaji had looked into purchasing the closed Northshore School from the Benton Harbor school district, for use as a garden-based community center, but that deal fell through.

He was driving through Benton Harbor looking for other prospective sites when he came across the Browns working in their garden.

“I drove past them. I thought “I don’t want to bother these people,’” Kahwaji recalled. Then something told him “You need to talk to these people. You can’t ignore all these signs around you telling you to help people. There were too many coincidences.”

The Browns were tired and dirty from working outside, and were surprised to be approached by a stranger, recalled Sharon, who attended the auction with Kahwaji. They ended up talking for three hours about their plans for expanding their garden into the neighboring lot and erecting statues of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the city’s namesake.

“It was very heavy spiritually. It just flowed out of him. I could just feel it,” Sharon Brown said of their conversation with Kahwaji. It’s there that he learned that the next-door lot was to be auctioned by the county, and he determined to make the purchase and donate it to the center.

The Browns have contacted three artists about creating the statues of King and Benton, a Missouri senator who opposed the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act as too favorable to slave owners, damaging his political career.

The figures have a cost of around $100,000 each, but the Browns are confident that the dream will become a reality.

“This is hands-on,” Sharon Brown said. “Let’s make this happen.”

Serious bid-ness

Much of the interest at the auction centered around an abandoned house at 317 N. Veronica Court in St. Joseph, with an assessed tax value of $102,200 and a minimum bid of $15,407. An open house was held Sunday because of the heightened interest.

The bidding was brisk under auctioneer John Glassman, with the winning bid coming in at $150,000 from Rob Hollacher and Dave Keller.

Hollacher was waiting in line at 7:30 and was the third bidder registered, but he came looking at properties in Coloma before deciding to bid on the St. Joseph home.

The men admitted being “surprised” and “shocked” when they got it, and at a lower price than they expected. This was Hollacher’s first purchase at the county auction, and they plan to sell the three-bedroom home.

Witkowski said that 43 percent of the properties available were sold, another record. Their goal is to sell 25 percent, he said.

Forty-three condominium units in Benton Harbor failed to sell, but Witkowski still wants to find a serious buyer for all the units.

Mike and Samantha Clark were among the successful home buyers, bidding on two properties.

“Be conservative” in your bidding, was Mike Clark’s advice. “Assume the worst about the houses.”

“Know your max,” his wife added. “Like going to the casino – take your $50, and when it’s gone, leave.” 

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak