Open letter to Obama Presidential Center from 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston

It is undeniable the reality of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park is welcomed news. For far too long, there has been little to no investment in South Side communities. So, the prospect of the OPC as an ongoing memorial of our nation’s first black president is sure to be an economic generator for the neighboring communities of East Hyde Park, North South Shore and East Woodlawn—which I represent.

I foresee the OPC having an impact on these South Side communities similar to what the Clinton Presidential Center had on the downtown area of Little Rock, Arkansas, which was largely an old boarded-up warehouse district. The $160-million complex reportedly spurred another $700 million of commitments in other downtown projects. Already, we are seeing interest in these neighborhoods from outside developers. Also, the prospect of converting Jackson Park-South Shore golf courses into a PGA-caliber destination would not be as immediate if it were not for the OPC.

My primary concern is how the Obama Foundation plans to engage the community in the transformation of these neighborhoods. Residents would like to know what is the plan for community outreach. They want to know who will be responsible for vetting and making decisions for all aspects of the OPC, including operations. Obviously, the Foundation has the last word, but it is imperative to forge a working relationship that is transparent, honest, respectful, productive and protective of the African American legacies of the OPC, residents and these communities.

Specifically, residents are interested in: 1) jobs in planning, architecture, construction, operations and professional services; 2) job training programs that will prepare workers in the construction trades, customer services, event planning, and as independent contractors; 3) direct and indirect concession and retail opportunities; and 4) early childhood education in STEM. As we move from a world that uses skilled labor to one of computers and robotics, there needs to be a dedicated effort to develop a workforce who builds, trains, operates and maintains all equipment associated with the day-to-day operations of the OPC.

While not all-inclusive, these are just a few of the issues that need to be addressed by the Foundation. There also is the issue of how the proposed golf course and OPC will be integrated. They should be planned together. They are both a part of Jackson Park and residents would like to have a comprehensive picture of how transportation, park use and recreation will be addressed. This is what I call “community and connections.”

Currently, there are a number of groups—inside and outside the community—meeting and organizing to make demands of the Foundation. Without communication from the Foundation, this can be detrimental to the OPC and the City of Chicago. This is not what anybody wants or what the Foundation needs.

I realize there may be far more pressure for community engagement with the OPC, than with other presidential centers. Given the urban setting and the history of President Barack Obama to the city’s South Side, it is urgent that he leaves a lasting legacy of how his Center benefitted surrounding communities without displacing indigenous residents. It could serve as a model for how all development, taking place in undeserved communities, should benefit the rooted residents and not the new transplants. I am prepared to assist you in every way possible to make this the legacy the President and First Lady desire for their community.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th)