CHICAGO – Even though Chicago is where Barack Obama got his start in politics, first lady Michelle Obama grew up and the Obamas still call their hometown, state and local officials aren’t taking for granted that the Windy City will land the president’s official library.
Illinois legislators advanced a plan Thursday to devote $100 million in state construction funds to bring the Obama presidential library and museum to Chicago. Lawmakers said the money was intended to sweeten a city bid, noting that Hawaii, where Obama was born, and New York, where he attended college, also are interested in housing the presidential artifacts and records.
A nonprofit foundation launched by Obama backers with the president’s support has asked parties interested in hosting the library to submit proposals by June 16.
“We are not going to rely on the president’s affinity for the city of Chicago,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, said during a legislative hearing in Chicago. “We will be subtle in our reminder where his family is from, where he started his career. But we want to be very competitive in making sure this library and this foundation come back to the city of Chicago.”
Emanuel and representatives from a handful of Chicago universities that want to host the library said the investment would return dividends by attracting tourists and new development such as hotels and restaurants.
Susan Sher, the first lady’s former chief of staff who is now leading the University of Chicago’s efforts to land the library, said it could have a “transformative effect” on South Side neighborhoods that are struggling economically by creating jobs, programs for youth and cultural partnerships.
“The library would be a source of great pride for the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago,” Sher said.
She also noted that Hawaii and New York are expected to make “very serious” bids.
“It’s important that we not take this for granted,” Sher added.
Hawaii’s development authority has set aside several properties – including a picturesque oceanfront plot – that could be leased at a nominal cost or given to the library, and the governor and other leaders have appealed to Obama’s sister and friends.
But Chicago, where Obama worked as a community organizer before getting elected to the state Senate and U.S. Senate, is thought by many to have the upper hand. In addition to Obama’s roots, the city also is home to many of the president’s closest friends and advisers. They include Martin Nesbitt, a Chicago businessman who is leading the Barack H. Obama Foundation, though Nesbitt has said no city or state has an advantage at this stage of the competition.
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is sponsoring the measure to provide the $100 million, said he knows Nesbitt personally but has not spoken to him about the library.
Madigan also said he will work with the various Chicago universities and other interested sites to try to agree on one location and submit the strongest possible unified bid. He called Thursday’s unanimous vote by the House committee “a very good start” to the process.
Madigan’s spokesman, Steve Brown, said legislators still must determine a funding source to pay for the $100 million in bonds.
But he said the goal is to pass the legislation through the House and Senate before the Legislature adjourns May 31, so it can be included in the bid submitted to Obama’s foundation.
The foundation is expected to review that information and notify groups in May that will be invited to submit more detailed and formal proposals. The final decision is up to the president and first lady, and is expected to be announced in early 2015.