Early cost estimate for Obama Presidential Center: $675 million

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Former President Barack Obama discussed the design and placement of the Obama Presidential Center at the South Shore Cultural Center in May, 2017. | Maria Cardona/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON – Former President Barack Obama has a formidable fundraising job ahead of him to build his Obama Center; the early phase spending is estimated at $675 million dollars, a figure tucked into an economic impact analysis released on Thursday.

That takes in spending for start-up construction, programming, staff and other operating expenses from 2015 to 2021.

This first-ever estimate is in a 31-page economic impact analysis conducted for the foundation last October by Deloitte Consulting and paid for by the Chicago Community Trust.

The financial model for the Obama Center is likely to be different from the other presidential libraries, the Sun-Times has learned. Obama is so confident of his fund-raising abilities that he intends to opt out of the National Archives and Records Administration system.


By giving up federal financial support from NARA, Obama also frees himself from a variety of potentially costly NARA requirements regarding the structure and operating endowment. The first hint of the pending deal came May 3, when the Foundation and NARA announced that the library in the Obama Center will not be housing the original records from the Obama administration.

In this new model, NARA will not administer a traditional “Presidential Library,” and will instead focus its “resources and personnel on preserving and making accessible the Presidential records of the 44th President of the United States in digital format to the greatest extent possible. “

After the Sun-Times inquired about getting a copy of the agreement, a NARA spokesman said: “Any formal agreement” remains “uncertain and pending further discussions between the Obama Foundation and NARA.”

The Obama Foundation is the dominant, but not the only player when it comes to thinking through how the Obama Presidential Center will meet its goal of becoming an economic engine to revitalize the South Side. City Hall, the University of Chicago and the Chicago Community Trust are also part of the team.

On Thursday, the Obama Foundation released the economic impact assessment to underscore how the Obama Center in Jackson Park will generate thousands of jobs — from internships to careers — and millions in spinoff tax dollars from linked developments each year to benefit the South Side, the state of Illinois and Cook County.

Groundbreaking is expected sometime next year with the Center to open in 2022.

The Rubenstein Forum academic building is planned for 60th Street and Woodlawn Avenue. | University of Chicago illustration

The Rubenstein Forum academic building is planned for 60th Street and Woodlawn Avenue. | University of Chicago illustration

That’s when the surrounding neighborhood will see tourists, expected to number between 625,000 to 760,000 on a long-term basis, but with even higher numbers in the beginning. An Anderson Economic Group study released in May 2014 done for the University of Chicago put the estimate at 800,000 visitors each year.

Now some other news related to development near the Obama Center: The U. of Chicago announced on Wednesday night two projects:

  • A dazzling-looking David Rubenstein Forum, an academic meeting center at 60th Street and Woodlawn Avenue.
  • And, next to the Rubenstein, a privately developed new hotel at 60th Street and Drexel Avenue, with 180 guest rooms and meeting space on a 1.6-acre site.

The hotel, dubbed “The Study at the University of Chicago” will be just a stroll from the Obama Center complex, which will run along Stony Island Avenue near 60th Street.

The issue – the challenge – for the Obama Foundation to make sure that jobs, contracts, and business opportunities truly benefit the people who live on the South Side – and not outside investors or fake minority- or women-owned business fronts.

Obama touched on the challenge of making sure the benefits go to the community when he unveiled the model of his Obama Center on May 3 at the South Shore Cultural Center.

A new 180-room hotel is expected to be built just a short stroll from where the Obama Presidential Center will be located. | University of Chicago illustration

A new 180-room hotel is expected to be built just a short stroll from where the Obama Presidential Center will be located. | University of Chicago illustration

He showed off a campus with a museum and offices in a high rise, a forum for events and meetings, open spaces and a library — only a single story, since most of the paper archives of the first digital president will be housed someplace else and the structure itself is likely to be smaller than other presidential libraries.

Since leaving the White House on Jan. 20, Obama has met with local officials to hear their concerns.

At the same time, there are neighborhood groups aiming to lock in jobs and contracts through a “community benefits agreement.”

Enter the Chicago Community Trust, throwing in $250,000 to create a non-profit umbrella organization to work with the Foundation, City Hall and the University of Chicago, plus members of the community and key neighborhood groups.

Chicago Community Trust President Terry Mazany told me Thursday: “We are hoping to start up an independent, economic development organization that consists of and represents the interests of the neighborhoods and other key partners to effectively work with the Obama Foundation and the investments in establishing the Obama Center.”

The working name of the group is the “Woodlawn, Washington Park and South Shore Community and Economic Development Organization.” The deadline to apply for the board was May 5.

Mazany said about 20 people will be on the board. The first clue of whether this new group is seen as independent will be known when its first board is selected, expected to be sometime this summer.

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