Aftermath of McCormick Place meeting: Step back – listen and hear

To the Editor:

There was not a person in the Hyatt Grand Ballroom last Thursday [Sept. 14], who didn’t break out in smiles, if not tears at the surprise appearance of “our” President on the jumbotrons.  His style, intelligence, and verbal acuity were not lost on any of us – but – I believe the excitement he generated would have happened even if we were not gathered to discuss the contentious subject of the use of our parks and the redevelopment of Chicago’s South lakefront community.

Let’s be clear – the event was staged, carefully thought out and kudos to those who ran it. It was hard not to get caught up in the marching-band brand of patriotic fervor.  Having President Obama on-call appeared to be a stroke of genius.

The organizers decided to defuse CBA contentiousness first thing – that’s worthy of the Obama style.  My guess is they reasoned, if President Obama says he’s against a CBA, that’s the final word, after which they could get back to showcasing the presidential center.

That approach worked for me until I heard the President’s replies, which left me uneasy on two fronts. Please help me understand:

*What does the Obama Center’s being a not-for-profit have to do with a CBA agreement?  (Will the golf course be a not-for profit?  Please spare me the ‘they are separate projects’ plaint.)  Are the Obamas asking their neighbors in the surrounding areas to leave the obvious community trade-offs solely in their ‘not-for-profit’ hands?  Do contractors charge less or hire fewer workers when they are building a not-for-profit building?

I found our President’s replies to CBA proponent Jeanette Taylor, and to others who camped out at the Hyatt overnight unsatisfactory.  Mr. Obama said:  I’m not an outsider here’ …, I used to do what you guys are doing now …, there might be 20 groups (some unknown) that will “come out of the woodwork.”… These answers were disturbing from the man who sat in the Oval Office, in full view on the world stage for eight years. He’s the guy who artfully engineered major complex negotiations and did so with style. Brokering transparent community inclusion should be his strong suit.  His carefully crafted replies struck me as inadequate and perhaps even a bit disingenuous.

I am a staunch proponent of the presence of the library on the South Side, as I believe we will all benefit from its presence.  Here are my suggestions that might help to move the project(s) along:

STEP BACK: If it takes a bit longer to get this right, both design-wise and community-wise, the Obamas and their well intentioned Foundation might consider stepping back and becoming ultra-sincere about transparency.  They can do this by giving meaningful dissenting voices a chance to influence what happens next.

SPEAK, LISTEN, HEAR -The Obama/CDOT/PGA, etc. teams should come together in thoughtfully organized public meetings that allow for on the record dialogues.  To date we’ve had showcase events, typified by one-to-one interactive exchanges, which are off the record.  This would provide a focused public voice to concerned citizens and civic groups, allowing for the airing of valid community issues.  Up to now, such events have been stacked in favor of the Obamas and their Presidential Center.

PRESENT THE COMMUNITY A COMPREHENSIVE PLAN: Please show us an overview that includes the total picture – plans for the Center, parking facility, the golf project and the music venue, so we get the whole picture of what’s being proposed.

Listening to and hearing opinions from community members who have been given an overview of all projects might ultimately be the fastest means to getting shovels in the ground.

Marching-bands, wonderful though they may be, might only serve to mask community discontent.

-Wendy Posner