CHICAGO – Barack Obama's hometown is making an official pitch that the city where the president got his political start should also be at the center of his post-White House legacy, with five separate Chicago bids to host his presidential library ahead of Monday's deadline.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who initially sought to channel the competing proposals into a single bid, has decided for the moment not to pick a favorite. But the mayor, who also is Obama's former chief of staff, is pressing the case that it should be on the South Side, where Obama's path to the White House began. Emanuel also believes that's where the library and museum would have the most lasting economic impact.
The submissions are from three universities, a community organization and a real estate developer. Despite some one-upmanship among them, all agree the city can't afford to lose to rival offers from New York City and Hawaii. Some involved are cautioning the city to take nothing for granted, pointing to its bid for the 2016 Olympics; Chicago sent Obama, Oprah Winfrey and then-Mayor Richard M. Daley to sell the city in person, yet the bid got booted in the first round.
"We're thinking we got this and we didn't even make first cut. We have learned a lesson," Paula Robinson, a Bronzeville civic leader, said of Chicago's humiliation.
Robinson is one of the authors of a pitch to bring the Obama library to the same patch of vacant land in Chicago's Bronzeville area where officials had hoped to put the Olympic village. The library is a second chance – and an even bigger prize – for a neighborhood that's been a center of black culture, business and politics since the Great Migration.
Bronzeville is up against the University of Chicago, Chicago State University and real estate developer Dan McCaffery, who wants the library to anchor a retail and residential lakeside development on the former site of a U.S. Steel plant. All four locations are on the South Side.
A fifth bid is being submitted by the University of Illinois at Chicago, just west of downtown.
Emanuel is close friends with Martin Nesbitt, the Chicago businessman Obama put in charge of the library search, yet he too is among those warning the city's universities and institutions not to think Chicago's got this in the bag. He has said he doesn't expect to win the library based on any sentiment the Obamas have for their home city.
He wrote to Nesbitt last month to give him a heads-up that the Barack Obama Foundation would be getting a number of initial proposals from Chicago and that he wasn't backing any specific plan in the qualification stage. But he did say it should be on the South Side.
"You and I know that a library on the South Side would be a homecoming for the Obamas, who met in Chicago and whose work on social justice, economic empowerment and educational advancement started there," Emanuel wrote.
The foundation will call for more specific, polished proposals this summer and select a site early next year. Representatives for Chicago's bid teams say they're willing to collaborate as the field is narrowed down.
The University of Chicago, where Obama spent 12 years as a constitutional law professor, says it's proposing three South Side sites off campus.
Chicago State University, on the Far South Side, says it has a strong claim to the library. The surrounding neighborhoods are where Obama established his earliest roots in the city as a community organizer in the mid-1980s.
"If there's one thing that really separates our bid from the other bids, it really is that deep-rooted connection that the community has to the president," Chicago State spokesman Tom Wogan said.
The University of Illinois at Chicago, on the Near West Side, contends it has the best location in terms of access by public transportation. It also brings technology to the table with a virtual reality theater known as CAVE that its researchers created.
The university says the wrap-around projections would allow visitors to walk around a virtual White House or through the halls of Congress as the president is about to give his State of the Union, said university librarian Mary Case.
She also sees the library as a space for researchers and policy makers to gather for discussion and for "empowering people to think about how to make change."