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Obama Foundation outreach meeting draws supporters, opponents

Lead architects Tod Williams (left) and Billie Tsien were on the panel at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place Thursday night with Michael Strautmanis, vice president of civic engagement, to discuss the construction of the Obama Presidential Center. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

Sharon Payne has no problems with former President Barack Obama as a person.

She voted for him — twice. She knows his political history as a community organizer. She supports him still. But the Obama Foundation, the nonprofit started in his name that’s creating a presidential center in Jackson Park, is a different story.

“The city is notorious for not keeping their word,” Payne said. “This is pushing in, and it’s going to push out working class people. I’ve been [in Woodlawn] a long time and I see the train coming. We’ve got to do something about it.”

Payne said that the foundation has not been transparent about what it’s doing and how it will affect South Side residents. Others have said the same.

On Thursday, at the foundation’s public outreach meeting, Payne and other opponents of the center joined supporters to pack a room at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place.

They heard from a team of top members from the foundation — and a skyped-in Obama — who talked about how they will turn the vision boards for the center into reality while honoring transparency and inclusivity, Melody Spann Cooper, moderator and co-chair of the foundation’s diversity and inclusion council, said at the start.

Michael Strautmanis, vice president of civic engagement, takes a question from Atimah Jordynn EL for former President Barack Obama, who appeared by remote. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

Michael Strautmanis, vice president of civic engagement, said that the goal of the center would not be to commemorate president Obama’s achievements — something that can be done every day in many ways, he said — but to create a place that “inspires and entertains” and has a far-reaching effect.

“It will be an international global force,” Strautmanis said. “And while we may focus internationally, our roots are here and we want our city’s spirit to help us fight the good fight.”

That fighting spirit came out for a few minutes during question time with Obama. The first question touched on the benefit agreement and asked the former president to put in writing that he would bring in jobs.

Obama said that wouldn’t happen.

He did say that there would be clear standards about “who’s hired and how residents will benefit. All will be public and will include the public.”

Payne said that if the center is “legit” about their promise to bring in jobs, properly train people and protect affordable housing, then it would put it in writing.

Louise McCurry, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, said that the center coming to Chicago, and all of the jobs it will have to create to function are already a benefit to the community.

“If we can touch one child’s life then this will be worth it,” McCurry said. “It’s a wonderful symbol of the South Side rising up and of economic prosperity. We’ll be able to change the lives of children, families and working people and I see that as a benefit.”

Hyde Park residents John Craig and Brenda Nelms (in front row) were among the crowd attending the open forum on Thursday evening to learn more about the Obama Presidential Center. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

After an hourlong presentation, the public was invited to talk to members of the city’s transportation department, among others, and view renderings of the museum to get a better understanding of the scope of the center.

Before Obama signed off, he said that he wants every person to feel as if this is their presidential center, and he hoped it would make them as proud of him and themselves as they were in Grant Park on that frosty election night eight years ago.

“I want you to know that the South Side deserves to have the same amazing sense of place that the rest of the lakefront does,” he said. “I think this can deliver.”