Chicago, Honolulu are competing for Obama library
The Associated Press | March 17,2013
WASHINGTON — Where will President Barack Obama put his presidential library?
Four years from the end of the Obama presidency, Chicago and Honolulu are ramping up major campaigns to build the center that will house the records of America’s 44th president.
In Illinois and Hawaii, the states Obama calls home, universities and community groups are drafting plans and using a mix of public and private efforts to persuade Obama to choose their site for what will be a monument to his historic presidency and an instrument to continue his legacy.
It’s an early down payment aimed at influencing a decision that likely won’t be announced anytime soon.
“It is a tough choice, but it’s not one that I’ve made yet,” Obama said last month.
In December, top officials from the University of Chicago, where Obama once taught law, traveled to Dallas and met with archivists at The George W. Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University. At the meeting was Susan Sher, first lady Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff and longtime friend who’s now a senior adviser to the University of Chicago’s president.
Alice McLean, who heads special programs in the university president’s office, also attended the meeting, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act. In the weeks that followed, McLean met Susan Donius, the director of presidential libraries for the National Archives and Records Administration, who provided a set of architectural and design standards required for presidential libraries.
University officials declined to comment, other than to say it’s premature to discuss a library.
In Honolulu, where the president was born, University of Hawaii officials have visited nearly all the 13 official presidential libraries to talk to officials involved in setting them up. An American Studies professor, Robert Perkinson, is leading a statewide effort coordinated by the university, with support from Gov. Neil Abercrombie and other state and federal officials.
The Legislature has passed two resolutions urging Obama to pick Hawaii. One resolution calls it “a matter of great state pride that President Obama is the first Hawaii-born citizen to hold that high office.”
On a rocky peninsula in the last undeveloped part of urban Honolulu sits a $75 million plot of oceanfront property that the state, through the Hawaii Community Development Authority, has set aside in hopes of securing the library, Perkinson said. The property sits next to the university’s medical school.
The state also has identified potential alternatives in case that site is unworkable and is expecting the overall cost, should Hawaii be selected, to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Organizers say they’ve been quietly laying the groundwork for a potential library for years but feel more comfortable discussing it publicly now that Obama has entered his second term.
Advocates for placing the library in Chicago speak of Obama’s coming of age as a community organizer in the city and his service in the Illinois Senate and the U.S. Senate. They say a presidential library on the city’s South Side could revitalize the community and be a force for economic growth.
“It’s not for me to say,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, told AP recently.
Hawaii advocates note that Honolulu attracts millions of tourists. They point to Obama’s vaunted pivot to Asia as a foreign policy focus and say a presidential library housed in the nation’s foothold in the Asia-Pacific region would be a powerful symbol.
“Honolulu is my birthplace. It’s the place where I grew up, and I met so many friends and fond memories, and it helped to shape me, so I’d like to find a way that after my presidency that connection remains,” Obama said in an interview last month with KITV, an ABC affiliate in Honolulu. “But, you know, I live in Chicago now, and that’s where I grew up professionally.”
It’s not necessarily a win-lose proposition.
Previous presidents have set up complex institutions and presidential centers that, in addition to a library, include other elements like a museum, think tank or foundation. Many advocates are anticipating that Obama could split up those institutions, putting the library in one state and the other components in the other.
The White House declined to comment on deliberations concerning Obama’s future library.
The emerging consensus in Honolulu is that the state university is best prepared to house the library. But there’s no such sense of agreement in Chicago, where a host of groups are publicly stumping on behalf of other sites on the South Side, where Michelle Obama grew up, voters first sent Barack Obama to public office and the Obama family has its home.
In Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, a cultural landmark for African-Americans not far from the University of Chicago, a vocal group of activists is pushing the site of the old Michael Reese Hospital, which was shuttered in 2008.
South Side community groups have held news conferences and met with city officials. Alderman Will Burns said the idea has been discussed in community planning meetings, although other options for the site, such as a technology park or an entertainment complex, are being considered.
Another location that could be in the running is the former U.S. Steel South Works site, an area along Lake Michigan where visitors could look to the west and see the skyline of Chicago’s South Side.