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The site where Michael Reese Hospital once stood isn’t much to look at, just a 37-acre swath of overgrown land in Bronzeville, behind a shoddy chain-link fence.
Developers are itching to build a casino or perhaps a sports entertainment complex on the city-owned property located in the shadows of downtown near the south lakefront. But residents of this historic African-American community have something grander in mind.
They envision a Barack Obama presidential library.
“This area tells the story of Chess Records, gospel music, blues and jazz, electrified by Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters,” said Harold Lucas, president of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council in Bronzeville. “When people come to Chicago, that’s what they want to see. They want to see the birthplace of Mr. Obama’s political career.”
Though Obama has not commented publicly about his plans for a library, every president since Herbert Hoover has established an archive in his home state to house papers from his White House tenure. That means the race could come down to Chicago — the city Obama most recently called home — and Honolulu — the city where he was born.
If Chicago is selected, the next hurdle would be to determine where the facility would be built. An Obama library likely would not open before the end of the decade, but already it is a hot commodity because of the prestige and economic vitality it would bring to the community.
Bronzeville would have to join other potential bidders, including the University of Chicago, the University of Hawaii and developers of the old U.S. Steel South Works site on the Southeast Side, all with decidedly more political clout, financial resources and name recognition.
Because Obama is the first African-American president, his library would have unique historical significance and likely would become one of the nation’s most popular attractions, according to experts on presidential libraries. It also would provide a platform from which Obama could continue or expand the work he began as president.
“Every one of the libraries is different and has a different mission. For the presidents who are still alive, it’s a sort of home base,” said Christopher Mooney, professor of political studies at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “These libraries have become really important for historical and political science research and sort of a centerpiece for their post-presidency.”
The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, affiliated with the University of Texas in Austin, set the standard for research facilities when it opened in 1971, Mooney said. The library holds more than 45 million pages of presidential documents, an extensive audiovisual collection and 2,000 oral history interviews.
That pales, however, to the collection at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, Ark. His library, which opened in 2004, has more than 78 million pages of official records, 2 million photographs and 12,500 videotapes.
Since the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum opened in 1979, every presidential library has had some affiliation with a major university.
The Kennedy library is adjacent to the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts, while the Gerald Ford library is on the campus of his alma mater, the University of Michigan; the George H.W. Bush library is at Texas A&M University in College Station; and the George W. Bush library will open in April on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The University of Hawaii, where the president’s parents attended school, has made no secret of its campaign to lure the library to Honolulu. The Hawaii Legislature passed a resolution calling on Obama to choose the state for the library and a committee of government and civic leaders has been put in place to lobby for it.
The U. of C., where Obama was a member of the law school faculty for 12 years, is widely considered the front-runner, though university officials have been tight-lipped about its efforts. However, officials at the National Archives and Records Administration, which administers 13 presidential libraries, confirmed that the U. of C. has expressed interest.
A U. of C. spokesman raised the possibility that a presidential library could be built off campus. That would open the door, some South Side community leaders said, to enter into a joint venture with the university to obtain the library. Others, however, said they see the university as competition.
“Why does the university feel they have a right to it?” said Leonard McGee, president of the Bronzeville Alliance, a group of residents and organizations seeking to revitalize Bronzeville. “I’m not saying it’s owed to Bronzeville, either, but why not provide an economic boon to a community that is deprived?
“If the university gets it, it’s the same old game as usual. Where money flows, things go,” he said.
Other communities also are looking to snare the library as an economic engine.
Developers of a proposed 125-acre residential and business community on the site of the former U.S. Steel South Works also would like the library as the anchor for a $4 billion lakefront project known as Chicago Lakeside.
A video posted on the website of developer McCaffery Interests, featuring former Mayor Richard Daley and other city officials, asks viewers to envision the Obama presidential library in the planned neighborhood, along with a medical complex and a technology center.
“I have a couple of interns looking into it so they can educate us on how this will happen,” said Dan McCaffery, chairman and CEO of McCaffery Interests, the firm chosen to redevelop the former Children’s Memorial Hospital campus in Lincoln Park and Niketown on Michigan Avenue. “Will I put my hand up in the air and wave a flag around and say, ‘Look at me?’ Of course.”
Another possible site mentioned is Washington Park, which borders the University of Chicago.
Ultimately, Obama will decide where to build a library. Clinton took an active role in the development of his library, starting work on it at the beginning of his second term. Bush waited until 2005 to select a site.
Wherever it lands, it won’t come cheap. Clinton’s library cost $165 million. The George W. Bush Foundation raised more than $300 million for his. A law passed by Congress in 2008 requires each president’s foundation, which raises private money to build the library, to place 60 percent of the cost of the library in an endowment to offset the government’s operating and maintenance costs once it opens. The cost of Obama’s library could spiral to $500 million, depending on how elaborate it is, library experts say.
But if it follows the precedent set by other presidential libraries, wherever the archives are, growth likely will follow.
According to Susan Donius, director of the National Archives’ Office of Presidential Libraries, they bring jobs and can be an engine for growth.
“In many areas, you have a library reaching 200,000 to 300,000 visitors a year,” Donius said. “That means people are coming into the city and spending travel and tourism dollars.”
The Clinton library was a boon to downtown Little Rock when it opened in 2004, turning a grungy area of abandoned warehouses and defunct railroad tracks into a 28-acre library park including a massive glass and steel structure surrounded by sparkling fountains. The facility has sparked an estimated $2 billion in new projects in the area, including an office and condominium complex, a technology center, restaurants and hotels, according to city officials.
In Illinois, all one has to do is look at Springfield, home of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, to see the potential impact. Though the facility is not part of the National Archives and is run by the state, it has the highest attendance of all of the presidential libraries in the country.
Though attendance has declined in recent years at presidential libraries across the country, the Lincoln library continues to attract nearly 300,000 visitors per year, according to Executive Director Eileen Mackevich. She estimates the library’s annual economic impact at more than $24 million.
While Mayor Rahm Emanuel has not spoken publicly about the possibility of an Obama library in Chicago, it could help him reach his goal of attracting 50 million visitors to the city annually by 2020. The mayor also wants to elevate Chicago from No. 10 to among the top five most popular U.S. cities for overseas travelers.
“It wouldn’t matter where it lands. Any time we can get something new into the neighborhoods, it’s great,” said Meghan Risch, spokeswoman for the city’s tourism bureau, Choose Chicago. “If it does go forward, it would be great for the city, especially the areas south and west of downtown.”
Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said geographically, Chicago is the best choice without question.
“To be successful, it means people get an opportunity to view it,” Roper said. “Flying all the way to Hawaii is costly and you’d have to tie it to a vacation. Here you can drive to the library and visit because you’re already in the city for a meeting or convention or the lights festival.”