The Barack Obama Foundation has announced that Chicago will be the home of the Barack Obama Presidential Center, and the University of Chicago is excited to collaborate with the Foundation on this transformative effort.
The Obama Presidential Center, which will include the presidential library, museum, and office and activity space for the Obama Foundation, will be located on Chicago’s South Side. The foundation has narrowed its choices to two possible sites—one in Jackson Park and one in the Washington Park area. In its announcement on May 12, the foundation said it will look to enter into an agreement with the city of Chicago in the coming months to develop the center at one of the two sites.
The choice of the South Side came after more than a year of community outreach that showed far-reaching enthusiasm for bringing the presidential center to this community. Dozens of institutions and non-profits across the Chicago region have expressed interest in the center’s broad potential, ranging from its community impact to the prospect of forming a new global destination.
In choosing the South Side, the Barack Obama Foundation cited the opportunity to make a transformative economic impact, intense community support for the project, the area’s rich history and connection with the Obamas, proximity to the University of Chicago, easy access to transportation options, and the chance to inspire young people in Chicago and around the world.
“With a library and a foundation on the South Side of Chicago, not only will we be able to encourage and effect change locally, but what we can also do is to attract the world to Chicago,” said President Obama in a video message announcing the decision. First Lady Michelle Obama, who grew up on the South Side, said, “I’m thrilled to be able to put this resource in the heart of the neighborhood that means the world to me.”
Martin Nesbitt, chairman of the Barack Obama Foundation, said the Obama Presidential Center will be “a dynamic, vibrant forum for civic participation, education, action, and progress.”
“The city of Chicago was instrumental in demonstrating to the President and First Lady the advantages of locating the future Obama Presidential Center in the city, and the University of Chicago brought to life the broad potential and vital energy of the South Side,” Nesbitt said.
“We are deeply appreciative that President Obama, Mrs. Obama, and the Barack Obama Foundation selected Chicago’s South Side as the home for the Obama Presidential Center, a decision that creates major opportunities for the South Side and the city of Chicago,” said University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer. “This would not be possible without the support of groups and individuals across the city and state, especially the leadership and commitment of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. We believe opening the Presidential Center will mark a watershed moment for the South Side and the city, serving as a catalyst for economic and cultural opportunities as well as community programming.”
“This is a great day for the city of Chicago and the South Side,” said Emanuel. “We have a deep connection to the First Family, and we are thrilled that they have decided to bring their legacy home through the Obama Presidential Center. It will bring tremendous opportunities to the South Side that will benefit the entire city.”
A place of possibility
Civic leaders across the Chicago region expressed excitement about the decision. Thousands of community members and groups have contributed to the selection process, whether through individual meetings with University staff and city planners or by attending public hearings about potential sites for the center. The Chicago City Council voted unanimously in March to make parkland available for the presidential center.
"The possibilities of this project unlocked the energy and commitment of so many people in our communities,” said Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, executive director of the Quad Communities Development Corporation, who spoke at several public meetings on the South Side bid. “We see a tremendous opportunity to help culturally significant neighborhoods become vibrant and more economically self-sufficient. I think that’s why people have come out to show their support, and it’s why we’re going to succeed together.”
The University of Chicago looks forward to collaborating with the Barack Obama Foundation in establishing the Presidential Center, and will offer support for the center’s efforts in community engagement, including planning, development, and individual and institutional collaborations.
“We are extremely eager to work with the Barack Obama Foundation to continue the momentum Chicago has built around this initiative,” said Derek Douglas, vice president for civic engagement at the University of Chicago. “This is the beginning of a long-term commitment to secure the Presidential Center’s success and to help our communities realize the economic benefits that we anticipate from the project and related business development.”
The foundation and presidential center will be independent from the University of Chicago. The Obama Foundation will be responsible for all aspects of the building, construction, design, and planning processes for the Obama Presidential Center. The National Archives and Records Administration and the Barack Obama Foundation will operate the future museum and library portion of the Presidential Center as a public-private partnership. The Obama Foundation will raise all of the funds needed for construction of the project; neither federal funds nor University funds will be used in the construction of the facilities.
The project has the potential to be an “economic boon” for surrounding neighborhoods and the city, according to a 2014 study by Anderson Economic Group. That report, commissioned by the University of Chicago, estimated that the library would account for about 3,300 construction jobs and would spur the creation of 1,900 permanent new jobs in retail, dining and other businesses, with $220 million in annual impact for Chicago.
“This will be a truly global institution, but it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the South Side and our city,” said Susan Sher, senior adviser to President Zimmer. “We are inviting our community to continue developing the ideas and energy that will make this Presidential Center unique.”
A space for collaboration
Collaboration and community involvement will be at the core of the University of Chicago’s work with the library.
Dozens of non-profit organizations have worked with the University on ideas for collaborating with the Obama Foundation. The University has shared such ideas with the Foundation, and will help integrate the presidential library into the cultural and educational fabric of the South Side through initiatives such as Museum Campus South, a collection of seven museums near the University or on campus.
The Obama Foundation said that in the coming months it will begin sketching out plans for the Obama Presidential Center, which will include the library, museum, and Foundation programs that will inspire new thinking and action. In line with President Obama’s priorities, the foundation will place a strong emphasis on community partnerships and opportunities for economic development. The Obama Foundation announced plans to open offices on the South Side by the end of the year.
The University of Chicago was one of four finalists that sought the Presidential Center, and the Obama Foundation indicated that it will continue to collaborate with the other three finalist universities—Columbia University in New York, the University of Hawaii, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. The Obama Foundation said it will embark on a process to identify additional academic institutions, thought leaders, community partners, and other organizations that can help advance the Foundation’s mission.