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Foundation officials vow to make public their progress on Obama Center minority hiring, contracting goals

Valerie Jarrett, who has been the “interim” foundation president, told the Sun-Times she is dropping her interim status. “I’ll be the president for the foreseeable future.”

Rendering of the Obama Presidential Center museum tower.
The Obama Foundation

With groundbreaking for the Obama Presidential Center likely in September — and with creating a diverse local workforce a priority — Obama Foundation officials on Thursday pledged to release quarterly reports so the public could determine if it is meeting its minority hiring and contracting goals.

The promise came during a meeting of the top foundation officials with the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board where a variety of issues related to the development of the Obama complex in Jackson Park were discussed.

If construction starts at the beginning of September, the grand opening will be in 2025.

In other news:

  • The signature structure is the tower housing the Obama museum. The stone used to cover the walls of the squat 235-foot high building — the stone texture and color — remains a major design decision. Former President Barack Obama will personally be selecting the stone, said Obama Foundation President Valerie Jarrett. Lori Healey, who is managing the Obama Center construction, said three “fairly similar” stones are under consideration.
  • Decisions on the permanent exhibits in the museum are still “a work in progress,” Jarrett said, with a replica of the Oval Office still being planned. She said she met with museum director Louise Bernard on Wednesday and said, “we are still going through the process of crafting the exhibits floor by floor on how to tell the story.”
  • In December, Jarrett, the longtime confidante and adviser to Barack and Michelle Obama, stepped in as interim foundation president after President Joe Biden tapped then foundation president, Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo, to be deputy secretary of the Treasury. The Senate confirmed Adeyemo on March 25 and Jarrett told the Sun-Times she is dropping the “interim” status. “I’ll be the president for the foreseeable future,” Jarrett said.
  • As of the end of March, a total of $847 million has been raised since the foundation was founded in 2014, Jarrett said. Fundraising slowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jarrett said fundraising prospects have brightened since groundbreaking was announced for 2021 and the end of a long-running federal review — needed because Obama decided to build on 19.3 acres in Jackson Park, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Regarding naming rights, a common “carrot” for donors in big dollar institutional fundraising, Jarrett said “major decisions” have not been made yet and added “there are going to be opportunities within the inside, certainly and maybe who knows, on the outside as well. So we’re still exploring that right now. But there will be opportunities.”
  • The foundation has been focusing on ways to leverage the Obama Center project into jobs for people living in certain communities in the South and West sides and to bolster the ability of minority-owned small businesses concerned about cash flow to bid for sub-contracts. Healey said the foundation has “committed” to pay bills within 30 days. “That’s really transformational,” she said and will make it easier for “small, diverse contractors” to bid on projects.

The foundation, over the past few years, has set a series of self-imposed goals when it comes to hiring, contracting and subcontracting. Jarrett said those statistics will be collected with reports released “on a quarterly basis” . . . “to be completely transparent.” She said “it’s our job, as the owner of the project, to hold the contractors feet to the fire and all the subcontractors and all the professional service providers.”

  • As part of the deal, the foundation has to certify to City Hall it has the money to pay for the construction and will have an endowment. Healey said the construction costs are estimated at $500 million. Details regarding the certification were provided to the Sun-Times by the foundation after the meeting in an email that stated, “The foundation certified to the city that we have ~$485M to cover $482M of hard construction costs. This certification was done by an independent, accounting/audit firm.”

As for the endowment obligation, the Sun-Times was told the foundation board “recently voted to establish an endowment which we will look to fund in the coming months and years. Like other museums, the foundation is committed to building an endowment to create long-term security for the funding of OPC operations and upkeep.”

  • The foundation appears supportive of a plan embraced by Masters champ Tiger Woods to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into one course. Michael Strautmanis, chief engagement officer for the foundation, said, ”Our position is it represents more investment in the park and more investment in the community, and we are in favor of that.”