By AARON GETTINGER
Few topics in Hyde Park are as polarizing as the Obama Presidential Center, especially as opponents and supporters of its establishment in Jackson Park do battle through a lawsuit, amicus briefs and opinion-airing online and in letters to the Herald editor.
Jackson Park Advisory Council (JPAC) officially has no position for or against the OPC, but its projects committee has voted in favor of it, and JPAC President Louise McCurry is one of the project’s most prominent champions.
Two other groups – Jackson Park Watch and South Side Neighbors for Hope – have staked positions at the poles, claiming to speak for the groups in favor of and opposed to the OPC’s planned construction in Jackson Park. But neither JPW nor SSN4H holds public meetings.
The SSN4H has a dozen members, all of whom are affiliated with the University of Chicago or reside in neighborhoods around Jackson Park.
Jackson Park Watch has a four-person board with two co-presidents, Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid. Schmid says JPW has no members, and she would not name the other two board members.
“We’re not a membership organization,” Schmid explained. “We go to many, many meetings. We’re always available to talk to people, anyone who would like to meet with us, anyone who would like to have us come and talk to their meetings.”
Nelms and Schmid are members of JPAC who are upset with what they called its lack of due skepticism about the OPC. They founded JPW in 2016 and, in October 2017, incorporated as an Illinois nonprofit under the fiscal sponsorship of Friends of the Parks, but JPW receives no funding from “Friends.”
Juanita Irizarry, Friends of the Parks’ executive director, said her organization is fiscal sponsor to over 50 park advisory councils and park partner agencies, allowing them to use their 501(c)3 status to raise money for operations without having to seek status on their own. Irizarry said the fiscal sponsorship also allows the organizations for which it is the fiscal sponsor to solicit tax-deductible donations. She said Friends does not raise money for JPW.
JPW commissioned an engineering firm to study alternatives to the planned roadway changes within Jackson Park last May — JPW is opposed to the closing of Cornell Drive — and they issue regular email updates.
“We sometimes say it’s a virtual organization,” Schmid said, adding that JPW pays for its post office box, website, someone to run the website and legal counsel. “On rare occasion when we have copied massive documents, we have actually paid for these massive documents out of the Jackson Park Watch treasury,” she said.
Schmid said that JPW receives its funding through solicitation. She said JPW is well researched, “very influential [and] speaks for a great number of people.”
“Its perspective helps inform the entire discussion,” she said, claiming that JPW has “turned out hundreds of people to numerous public meetings” and “promoted attendance and participation in whole south lakefront planning process.” Even though JPW is not a membership organization, Schmid said JPW is fundamentally trying to increase public participation in the OPC planning process.
SSN4H formed last October. Hundreds of people have signed its letter of support for the planned construction of the OPC in Jackson Park that grew out of circulation from among University of Chicago associates to members of the surrounding communities.
SSN4H’s chair and co-founder is Erin Adams, a South Shore resident, JPAC member and biology professor at the U. of C. She also is an inveterate critic of the Herald’s coverage of OPC developments; Schmid has also complained that the Herald has not given JPW sufficient inclusion in its reporting.
Adams confirmed the SSN4H also does not hold regular, public meetings, but she said around 12 members have weekly, closed phone calls to discuss strategy. She said its membership is geographically representative of the neighborhoods around Jackson Park and suspects it is socioeconomically representative as well.
“If it gets to the point where there’s enough enthusiasm and enough feedback to have public meetings, I think that’s something that we would certainly be welcome to do,” she said.
Adams said SSN4H formed “through discussions of various community members who were really frustrated with the press’ reliance on an organization, if you can call it that, called Jackson Park Watch.”
“We really solicit feedback from everybody,” she said. “There’s no one single person who’s kind of calling the shots.” The organization also disseminates information on local events like jobs training and tax workshops through its social media channels, and its representatives are present at meetings of organizations like 1Woodlawn.
“I think all of us who have lived in the communities — some of our members have been born and raised on the South Side — know that this is challenging, and an opportunity like the presidential center is something that we can really not take for granted, on all sides,” Adams said.
She accused opponents of the OPC in Jackson Park, including JPW, of fear-mongering. “We’re trying to say, ‘This is not the reality. This is not the intent of what the [Obama] Foundation wants for the OPC. We’re all going to benefit from this.’”
An earlier, online version of this story incorrectly named a relationship between Friends of the Parks and Protect Our Parks v. Chicago Park District. No relationship exists. The Herald also misinterpreted the fiscal relationship between Friends of the Parks and Jackson Park Watch. The Herald regrets the errors.