For over a year now, speculation has been swirling about who will throw their hats in the ring to host the future Obama Presidential Library. The city of Chicago—the Obamas’ pre-presidential hometown—is the obvious choice, but not the only contender. The University of Hawaii at Honolulu, near the President’s childhood home, and New York City’s Columbia University, the President’s alma mater, are also likely bidders. But there are also at least four contenders in Chicago alone, and although Mayor Rahm Emanuel has stated that he prefers his city to present a unified bid, it doesn’t look like all parties involved are willing to play nice.
The competition for the library just entered full swing, as The Barack Obama Foundation announced late last month that the bidding process to host the library is officially open. According to the Foundation, any “institution of higher learning, not-for-profit organization, private developer, or municipality that wishes to sponsor, develop, and maintain a multi-unit facility” is invited to submit a response to the Request For Qualifications (RFQ). Responses are due by June 16.
In sorting out the Chicago stakeholders, the city’s South Side is home to the most potential bids. It’s Michelle Obama’s childhood home, where Barack Obama worked as a community organizer, and finally, where the president launched his first political campaign.
“We want [the library] in Chicago. But I want to make sure the site I’m suggesting gets full consideration,” says Dan McCaffrey, Chairman and CEO of McCaffery Interests. The real-estate development company envisions the library facility as the gemstone of its Chicago Lakeside Development project, a planned urban oasis on more than 600 acres of land 15 miles south of the city center.
The University of Chicago, with its strong ties to the Obama family, is also aiming to bring the library to this corner of the city. (Not only did the President teach at the university’s law school for well over a decade, but Michelle Obama served as vice president of its hospital, among other positions, and the Obamas’ daughters attended the affiliated University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.) In a recent statement, University President Robert J. Zimmer reiterated the university’s commitment to working closely with the City of Chicago and South Side community leaders to bring the Obama legacy home. “Together with a number of civic and institutional leaders who are passionate about the future of Chicago’s South Side, I look forward to making the case that the Obama Presidential Library would be ideal for one of our neighboring communities.” Which South Side community that may be is anyone’s guess: nearby Washington Park could be an option, or the neighborhoods of Kenwood, Woodlawn, or Bronzeville.
But Chicago State University (CSU), situated near the Roseland and West Pullman neighborhoods where Obama first worked as a community organizer in the South Side, specifically wants to see the presidential library facility on its campus. Former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, an early supporter of Obama’s state senate campaign, is co-chairing the CSU bid. Local advocate Hermene Hartman has outlined several compelling reasons why the library should be linked to the historically black college. “The community that Obama worked for would positively change…the placement of the library on this site would be historical and inspirational,” she wrote in a recent editorial at Huffington Post.
The shared mantra among all interested South Side contenders is this: an Obama Presidential Library in the area would beneficial to all, bringing unparalleled attention and economic development to this often-neglected part of the city. Many have commented on the potential for the library to inspire and benefit young Chicagoans especially in need of opportunity.
On the city’s near west side, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) intends to go it alone. According to a news release, UIC will be “preparing a response” and has at least four potential sites to offer on its campus, a location which is a “global transportation hub for public transit and air, rail, and interstate travel that will make the Obama Presidential Library easily accessible to the widest audience.”
Meanwhile, New York City’s Columbia University has not been forthcoming about its plans to formally respond to the RFQ. “Columbia is proud to count President Obama among our alumni and we are closely reviewing the foundation’s request for qualifications for a future presidential library reflecting his values and priorities,” Robert Hornsby, Associate VP of Media Relations told Library Journal. In contrast, the University of Hawaii has been transparent about its efforts to locate the facility in Honolulu, launching the Hawaii Presidential Center Initiative to tout the benefits of a presidential library in Obama’s native state.
After reviewing all responses submitted by the June deadline, the Foundation will issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to the most competitive applicants. It’s expected that the President and the First Lady will make the final site selection in early 2015.