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From left, Obama Center Museum Director Louise Bernard, Vice President of Civic Engagement Michael Strautmanis, Executive Director Robbin Cohen and CEO David Simas, met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Obama Foundation’s new promise package still snubs community benefits agreement

SHARE Obama Foundation’s new promise package still snubs community benefits agreement
SHARE Obama Foundation’s new promise package still snubs community benefits agreement

WASHINGTON – The Obama Foundation, having rejected demands for a community benefits agreement connected to the Obama Presidential Center, issued a sweeping series of promises on Friday about jobs, affordable housing, economic development and more, days before a crucial Chicago Plan Commission meeting.

“Today, we’re proud to share our pledge to make sure the community that gave the Obamas so much benefits directly from the Obama Presidential Center,” Michael Strautmanis, the foundation’s Vice President of Civic Engagement said in a statement.

The Obama Center, to be constructed on 19.3 acres in Jackson Park, needs a series of approvals from the city and federal governments, with the next stop the May 17 commission meeting in City Hall.

The Foundation has been running a campaign-style drive to demonstrate to the commission the Obama Center has support, with Strautmanis, stating in one e-mail booster appeal, “Let’s show the Chicago Plan Commission what we’re made of.”

Former President Barack Obama led the charge against community benefits agreements – maintaining that locating his presidential center on the South Side where he lived and where his political career started would be a powerful economic engine. But that did not dissuade local activists who often have noted that a younger Obama, during his community organizing days on the South Side, would be keeping up the pressure.

Former President Barack Obama addresses the crowd as the last speaker at the final session of the Obama Foundation Summit Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, in Chicago. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Former President Barack Obama addresses the crowd as the last speaker at the final session of the Obama Foundation Summit Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, in Chicago. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

The pledges are in a document titled “Community Commitments, Spring, 2018” and set the stage for what will be a debate over whether the Foundation owes the Chicago Park District any parkland as part of the deal.

Since 2014, when the University of Chicago led the drive for the Obama Center to be on Chicago’s South Side, the public was told that if Chicago Park District land was taken for the project, the end result would be “parks positive,” with the district getting more land than it is giving up.

The Foundation established its side of the argument on the parks positive matter in the document: The four main Obama Center buildings take up only 2.6 acres, and of that, 1.6 acres are rooftops to be “totally accessible.” The other 16.7 acres will be “publicly accessible.” There will be a net gain of parkland if the Jackson Park portion of Cornell Drive is closed – a controversial plan backed by the foundation and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The Obama Foundation in January awarded 51 percent of the construction business to four minority-owned firms on Chicago’s South and West sides, with 49 percent going to a fifth firm. The new document spotlights more details:

• The five companies, banding together as the Lakeside Alliance, are promising to open a storefront South Side center for local residents to learn more about jobs, and to support apprentice programs in Washington Park, South Shore and Woodlawn.

• To provide transparency and accountability to a skeptical community whose residents have been burned in the past, the foundation pledges to hire a “construction diversity and reporting firm to ensure local, diverse hiring.”

• When it comes to hiring professionals “across all industries,” a director of strategic sourcing to put a system in place will be hired, the foundation promised.

• Many jobs and money-making opportunities will be indirectly linked to the Obama Center. The Obama Foundation was a key player in creating the Emerald South Side Economic Development Collaborative, whose co-chair is former Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“We will support policies and tools that incentivize the development of a strong small business corridor around the OPC and beyond,” the foundation promised, with an emphasis on locally-owned retail.

There was no mention of how much money – if any – the Obama Foundation would put up to get Emerald up and running.


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Obama last February at a McCormick Place event heard from residents concerned about whether his center will trigger rising housing costs and gentrification, driving people from the very community Obama and former first lady Michelle are trying to help.

“We will support neighborhood stabilization efforts” the document said, with the foundation to bring city, county and local residents together to “create a strategy around vacant land and responsible affordable housing.”

Also, “we will support policies that ensure residents who wish to stay in the area will be given the tools that allow them to do so.”

How the foundation will fund and manage these ambitious goals remains to be seen.

The document recapped initiatives the Obama Foundation already launched to bolster the South Side: an Obama Youth Corps and pilot job-training programs at Hyde Park and Kenwood high schools and Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy.

The Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance is getting $1 million from the foundation to help Chicago organizations providing job training and other assistance to young men of color.

While the Obama Center will celebrate the nation’s first black president, the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl., has been telling the stories that led to the Obama presidency since it was founded in 1961. The OPC promised to “work closely” with DuSable and the Museum of Science and Industry – but how this is translated into action is not yet known.

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