U. of C. reaches out for partners in Obama library bid

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WASHINGTON — The University of Chicago, far from going it alone, is reaching out for partners in its quest to land the Obama presidential library and museum on the South Side of Chicago, already taking steps to collaborate with potential rivals: the University of Hawaii, the University of Illinois and a leading Bronzeville community group.

In a series of exclusive interviews I’ve learned:

  • Hawaii, the birthplace of President Barack Obama, is not competing for what would be the massive library and museum. Instead, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie told me the state wants to land an Obama presidential center in Honolulu — as a “natural adjunct to whatever physical presence a presidential library would have on the mainland.”
  • Abercrombie and Susan Sher, the University of Chicago executive leading the drive for the project — and former chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama — have discussed possible collaborations. Sher and two other U. of C. officials — library project manager Alice McLean and executive vice president David Green — visited Honolulu in January and met with, among others, Abercrombie and the Honolulu mayor. The U. of C. earlier hosted a delegation from Hawaii. “We did talk about collaborating, and they are open to it, and we are open to it,” Sher said. Abercrombie — a friend of Obama’s parents and grandparents — told me he is receptive to a U. of C. partnership. As for the Hawaii/Chicago visits, “They took us to the proposed site, for example, and we basically drove them around the South Side of Chicago,” Sher said.
  • University of Illinois Board Chair Chris Kennedy, who has been working on a plan to anchor the library complex at the West Side UIC campus, told me he got a call from a top U. of C. official who told him “they want to bring a cooperative spirit to the movement to bring a library to Chicago . . . By working together, we would have better results than if we worked alone,” Kennedy said, adding “the voice of the West Side needs to be heard.” Kennedy told me he was “very receptive” to the U. of C. outreach and is open to being “committed to working together.”
  • Paula Robinson, the managing partner of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership — touting the former Michael Reese Hospital site at 29th and Ellis — told me she met with Sher and they are collaborating. “Let’s make sure we choose the best site,” Robinson said. “We are not in a battle.”

Just as the U. of Hawaii is contemplating an Obama Center, offshoots of a library and museum could be envisioned for the various Chicago interests, which includes Chicago State University, which is pushing a site near its campus at 9501 S. King Dr.

I earlier reported that Daniel McCaffery, the real estate developer pitching a lakefront site on the far Southeast Side wants to forge a strategic alliance with the U. of C.

The U. of C. has been silent on a specific site except to say the location would be on the South Side of Chicago. Sher provided more insight about potential locations that the school favors which are near, but not part of the campus.

“We hope very much that it will be in one of the neighboring communities, not in Hyde Park, but with a few miles radius of Hyde Park,” she said. The school is looking at sites where the construction of a library and museum could be a “good catalyst” for sparking economic development.

Sher confirmed that they have looked at — in addition to the sites already mentioned — parcels near 55th and King Drive and the South Shore Cultural Center, at 7059 S. South Shore Drive.

All the parties are in a sort of limbo, waiting for the newly created Barack H. Obama Foundation to issue its “request for qualifications,” which were supposed to come out last month.

When the foundation was announced on Jan. 31, its leader, Chicago business executive and Obama friend Marty Nesbitt, said the RFQ’s would be released in February.

The RFQ is critical because it should yield more specific information about the scope of the project and what the president and the first lady have in mind for their legacy institution. Nesbitt set a timeline of issuing more detailed “request for proposals” in May with a site picked by early 2015.

It’s in the interest of the Obamas to have a very competitive process and to encourage many bidders, since at a minimum the library, museum and an endowment will run at least $500 million.

Columbia University in New York—where Obama picked up his undergraduate degree—is also interested in the Obama library and could up the ante for Chicago because the school could bring massive financial firepower to the table.

In the meantime, the U. of C. — not wanting to making unilateral moves with such an enormous project at stake — has also been reaching out to its South Side community. The school created a 12-member community advisory board for the Obama Presidential Library which met for the first time on Feb. 5.

“We always wanted this to be a process that had a broad range of community partners,” Sher said. The advisory group role is to offer “advice, counsel and ideas about collaboration, thoughts about sites, any number of things.”

At present, it’s not clear what kind of proposals any collaborations led by the U. of C. will yield.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has told me that he wants the city to have one unified bid. Sher said it probably should be a “two-step process,” with Emanuel stepping in at a later stage.

“My understanding is the site selection committee wants to encourage all kinds of applicants,” Sher said. “…Whether it is a university, or a community group or a neigborhood.”

On Tuesday, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Rep. Monique Davis, both Chicago Democrats, introduced a bill to provide $100 million in state capital funding to help pay for an Obama library and museum in Chicago.

If nothing else, that move upped the price for Columbia — while at the same time fortifying a seat at the bargaining table of the state schools seeking at least a piece of the project, UIC and CSU.

All the final decisions about site and the scope of the project are up to the Obamas.

FOOTNOTE. Those members of the U. of Chicago advisory board are Carol L. Adams – president and CEO, DuSable Museum of African American History; Timuel Black, longtime activist and educator; Byron T. Brazier, pastor, Apostolic Church of God; Michelle L. Collins – president, Cambium LLC.; Guy Comer – president, Comer Science and Education Foundation; Walter E. Massey – president, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago; David R. Mosena – president and CEO, Museum of Science and Industry; Shirley J. Newsome – president, South East Chicago Commission; board chairman, Quad Communities Development Corporation; Terry Peterson – vice president of Corporate and External Affairs, Rush Medical Center; Jim Reynolds, Jr. – chairman and CEO, Loop Capital; David J. Vitale – chairman, Urban Partnership Bank and Andrea Zopp – president and CEO, Chicago Urban League.


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