University to submit collaborative proposal for Barack Obama Presidential Library on South Side

After months of consultation with a broad set of community and university partners, the University of Chicago will submit a proposal on June 16 to the Barack Obama Foundation in support of locating the Barack Obama Presidential Library on Chicago’s South Side.

A UChicago faculty committee that examined presidential libraries concluded last year that it would be in the interest of the University to bring such a project to the South Side. The June 16 submission will respond to the foundation’s request for qualifications, issued in March, which asked interested organizations for a range of supporting information.


Building the potential for collaborations around a presidential library has been a key part of the University’s effort. In the course of dozens of meetings, community members and organizations have expressed overwhelming enthusiasm for the potential of a presidential library to make a substantial economic impact on the South Side, and to create a vital cultural destination drawing visitors from around the globe.

“We believe this could be an historic moment for the South Side,” said Susan Sher, senior advisor to President Robert J. Zimmer. Sher is coordinating the University’s activities around the presidential library project, inviting partners from across Chicago and beyond to generate ideas for how the library could make a distinctive impact on the South Side — and how the community could provide unique opportunities for the library.

The University is proposing that the presidential library be located off-campus, in one of the neighboring communities that could greatly benefit from the economic development the library would bring. An economic impact study that the University commissioned estimated that the library project would create 1,900 new, permanent jobs, with $220 million in annual economic impact and 800,000 annual visitors. The report also projected that in the neighborhoods surrounding the library, the development could support 30 new restaurants, 11 new retail outlets and a new hotel.

Federal law provides that presidential libraries are independent, non-partisan institutions managed by the National Archives and Records Administration. President Obama’s library will be constructed with funds donated to the non-profit Barack Obama Foundation, which has announced a phased process for choosing a site. After the RFQ phase, the foundation has said it will issue a Request for Proposals to the most competitive applicants, with final selection of a site in early 2015. The decision of where to place the library is up to President Obama and Mrs. Obama.

Fresh ideas for collaboration

Although the specific nature of programming at the library will be determined by the library’s leadership at a later date, the foundation’s RFQ indicated an interest in developing partnerships with multiple organizations. The University has convened meetings with numerous groups that have expressed interest in participating, and those talks have yielded ideas from a wide range of organizations.

To highlight a few of the many promising ideas, some of the potential collaborators came together recently to discuss how a presidential library could make a difference on the South Side while educating and inspiring young people from around the world. The panelists were Torrey L. Barrett, Executive Director of the KLEO Community Family Life Center; Dr. Byron T. Brazier, pastor of the Apostolic Church of God and Chairman of the Network of Woodlawn; James G. Keane, President and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago; David R. Mosena, President and CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry; Kamau Murray, President and Founder of the XS Tennis and Education Foundation; and Sophia Shaw, President and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Shaw is prepared to offer the Chicago Botanic Garden’s counsel in building garden components at the library, creating “a thriving place for learning, for inspiration, and for growth.” She noted that the Chicago Botanic Garden already administers extensive efforts in sustainable urban farming across Chicago, including a 20,000 square foot garden on the convention center rooftop of McCormick Place near downtown Chicago. Her group partners with many Chicago institutions to offer training for youth, adults, and ex-offenders.

Barrett said he is excited by the possibility of hosting joint events with the library to complement his organization’s efforts to help young men recently released from the criminal justice system. Partnering with the library could allow his group to expand its programming for grandparents raising grandchildren whose parents were victims of violence, he said. Engaging with the community would help the library inspire youth to learn how to become involved in politics, Barrett said.

The Museum of Science and Industry could work with the library to expand its outreach in STEM education and science clubs, Mosena said. That involvement also could motivate students and educators to “be part of a dialogue on how public policy about science is shaped by a president, and how it can shape the nation’s future,” he said.

Murray sees the presidential library as potentially an ideal partner for efforts like XS Tennis, which provides free tennis instruction to 2,000 Chicago students per week and is the nation’s largest minority tennis foundation. His organization is ready to work with the library on outreach to students through efforts like free tutoring and nutrition education.

“This will be a great place for organizations to come together to really change the narrative of what our youth feel is possible,” Murray said.

Such ideas give a sense of the immense possibilities that the Barack Obama Presidential Library could bring to communities on the South Side and throughout the Chicago area, Sher said.

“We are committed to working in partnership with the city, our neighbors, and organizations large and small to make this a reality,” she said.