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Obama Center reps visit churches to spread the word

The Obama Presidential Center concept model

The Obama Presidential Center concept model, as seen from above and the northwest. Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago. | Obama Presidential Center

Representatives of the Obama Foundation borrowed pulpits at churches on the South and West Sides Sunday to share this message: If you support the Obama Presidential Center being built, then speak up, because it isn’t a done deal.

“The main reason I am here is so that people know it’s not a done deal,” Brian Sleet, a spokesman for the Obama Foundation, told congregants during a service at the Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

“A lot of times people will just assume, ‘Hey, they made the announcement, it’s coming, there’s no problems and we can just sit back and wait for things to happen.’ That’s not the case,” Sleet said.

The project still needs approval from the city, he stressed. “And the people who are against this — and there are people who are against this — they’re speaking up,” Sleet told a receptive audience.

“And so all we’re asking is that those of you who want this benefit, who want to see this in the community, we need you to speak up. We need you to come out. We need you to let your voice be heard. Because we want to make sure that people understand that the community in large wants this on the South Side of Chicago.”

Sleet’s pulpit pep talk was part of an outreach effort — dubbed “Get Ready Chicago” — that was timed to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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Members of the foundation-allied Coalition for the Obama Presidential Center organized the campaign, which included pep rallies at area high schools Friday and bus tours of the proposed construction site Saturday.

The Obama Foundation’s vice president of civic engagement, Michael Strautmanis, also visited several churches on Sunday.

The public relations blitz precedes a City Council meeting Wednesday at which the plans for the Obama Center will be introduced.

Community activists have pushed for a community benefits agreement that would ensure in writing that jobs go to folks from the neighborhood, locals won’t get displaced, and that future construction in the area will include affordable housing.

The Obama Foundation has refused to go along with the idea, essentially telling the community: trust us.

On Sunday, Sleet said construction hiring was recently announced “and 51 percent of the financial benefit is going to African-American contractors.”

Economic benefits also would filter to surrounding neighborhoods, he said.

“This center is supposed to bring 700,000 people a year to the South Side of Chicago. People who would normally not be here,” he said.

“Here’s the thing, if you have a business in Woodlawn, in Englewood, Chatham, you know, wherever, it may be hard to get someone from the North Side, or from another country, to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to travel to the South Side of Chicago just to go to your business.’ But if they’re already here, if they’re 10 or 15 minutes away, that becomes an entirely different conversation. That’s the opportunity. That is what we’re trying to create,” Sleet said.

The foundation is planning for the center to become a global tourist destination, a Chicago cultural gem and an engine of South Side economic development.

Paperwork filed with the city indicates the Obama Center complex, to be constructed on 19.3 acres in Jackson Park, is to include a forum, a building likely to house a Chicago Public Library branch, an athletic/large group meeting facility and a 235-foot tall tower to contain the Obama museum, the signature building of the campus.

The center is to be developed and operated, with key exceptions, with privately raised funds.

But it’s not clear whether taxpayers will get whacked for widening Lake Shore Drive, which some estimates place at $100 million.