Obama team checking out library sites: First cut in September

Written By Lynn Sweet Posted: 08/16/2014, 07:00pm

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, sits on a bank of the Grand River. On a recent summer day a wedding party was posing for pictures in the lovely grassy riverfront area adjacent to the building, perhaps unaware that the burial site for Ford and his wife, Betty, was a few yards away.

The Ford museum is a product of a public-private partnership with state and local governments pitching in taxpayer funds for the building and related infrastructure improvements. The result is an imposing structure that helped spark an economic renewal on the west side of the river and is a major tourist destination for the city.

“I think we’ve been a great boon,” James Kratsas, the museum’s deputy director, said.

Other presidential libraries and museums in the federal system — President Barack Obama’s facility would be the 14th — have been built with some form of local and state public support, whether direct or indirect. 

Seven major bidders — five in Chicago, including two public schools, Chicago State University and the University of Illinois, Chicago — submitted presentations for the Obama project by the June 16 deadline. A dozen sites are in play.

Obama Foundation personnel this summer have been making some site visits and in a few weeks — the target is mid-September — the foundation will announce the bidders surviving the initial round of scrutiny and ask them to submit more detailed proposals. 

A few months ago, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, made a clumsy and poorly conceived attempt to lure the Obama presidential library and museum to Illinois with taxpayer funds. 

Madigan tried to jam a $100 million appropriation through the Legislature to construct the facility. He wanted to dangle the gift before the Chicago-based Barack Obama Foundation, which had not asked the state of Illinois for anything. Neither had any of the major Chicago bidders.

A wealthy contender, such as the University of Chicago, has the financial firepower to submit a proposal with a pledge to pay all the construction costs. Madigan’s proposal was premature because it may not be needed.

The funding measure rightly met resistance. The state has financial woes, and Madigan’s attempt to stuff it down the throats of state House members through legislative sleight-of-hand was, even for him, going too far too fast. There was no appetite to take it up in the Democrat-controlled state Senate. Madigan folded.

But Madigan’s bungling should not preclude an appropriate amount of public support, if targeted and proportional — and truly needed.

In May, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged to the foundation a package of infrastructure improvements the city would make if the facility is located on the South Side.

The newest presidential facility, for former President George W. Bush, opened May 1, 2013, on the campus of Southern Methodist University, a private school in Dallas. The Bush Center was entirely paid for by the Bush Foundation, which raised money for the construction, with SMU donating the land through a long-term lease for more than 100 years.

There is precedent for state and local taxpayer help to establish a presidential facility.

According to a review released last week by the National Archives and Records Administration Office of Presidential Libraries of nonfederal funding sources:

◆ In 1957, the city of Independence, Missouri, donated 13.27 acres of land, valued at more than $400,000, for the Truman Library. The Missouri Highway Department built nearby roads and an underpass, spending about $500,000. Missouri lawmakers in 1999 approved $2 million for exhibits and renovations at the library. The Missouri Development Finance Board issued $3.5 million in tax credits over a five-year period.

◆ The Kansas legislature appropriated $225,000 to help design and build the Eisenhower Library in Abilene. In 1964, the state of Kansas gave the U.S. 9 acres of land for the site.

◆ The University of Massachusetts, Boston, a public school, donated 9.5 acres for the John F. Kennedy facility that is near its campus. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts  approved $2 million to improve the site.

◆ The University of Texas, Austin, a public school, donated 14 acres in Austin and paid more than $10 million to build and furnish the Lyndon B. Johnson facility.

◆ The city of Yorba Linda, California, donated land for the Richard Nixon facility.

◆ Ford’s museum is in his native Grand Rapids, and his library is at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. (Split locations are no longer allowed.)

The state of Michigan appropriated $3 million for museum construction in Grand Rapids; the city of Grand Rapids donated the land. The Kent County government paid more than $1 million for landscaping, an overpass and a reflecting pool.

The University of Michigan offered to provide land in Ann Arbor and construct and equip a library.

◆ Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, a public school, donated 90 acres for the Bush 41 facility and committed to securing funds to construct the library.

◆ The city of Little Rock, Arkansas, only charges $1 a year for the 31 acres the Bill Clinton facility occupies.

Former presidents have to bankroll the construction of their libraries, and once built, they are turned over to the National Archives, which maintains them through a mix of a private mandatory endowment and federal funds.

Obama will be the first president whose endowment has to be 60 percent the cost of the library, up from 20 percent.

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