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To Make Obama Presidential Center Succeed, Local Business Leaders Must Support It, Former President Says Ahead Of Construction

The former president compared his center's plans to "great civic projects in Chicago" like Millennium Park in an appearance with economic leaders.

Former President Barack Obama speaks at a virtual Economic Club of Chicago discussion Friday afternoon.
Economic Club of Chicago
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WOODLAWN — Former President Barack Obama is urging local business owners to take “ownership” in bringing the long-delayed Obama Presidential Center to fruition.

The presidential center would occupy about 20 acres of land in Jackson Park. The planned campus is bounded by North Midway Plaisance, Jackson Park’s West Lagoon, 62nd Street and Stony Island Avenue.

Much like other expansive public spaces and institutions around the city, the center will need continued support from economic leaders to be successful, Obama said during a conversation Friday with the Economic Club of Chicago.

“We need the Chicago business community to feel ownership for helping to get this done, because that’s how great civic projects in Chicago — like Millennium Park, like the Art Institute — that’s how we’ve historically gotten things done,” Obama said. “I hope this will be no different.”

The Obama Foundation is developing a virtual component to the presidential center, acting foundation President Valerie Jarrett said. The longtime adviser to the former president floated the possibility of recreating the center in virtual reality.

“We want to build this platform where people can participate and have a virtual experience,” Jarrett said.

The center’s success will depend on its ability to inspire young people to combat economic inequality, as well as its ability to “have a ripple effect” on South Side communities, Jarrett said.

“We are counting on this next generation to create a more inclusive country — to make sure we are leveling the playing field of opportunity for so many people who have been left behind historically,” Jarrett said. “I always say talent is ubiquitous in our city; opportunity is not.”

Credit: Obama Foundation
Animated renderings of the Obama Presidential Center campus were shown during Friday’s conversation.

Residents continue to organize against displacement in communities near the presidential center site ahead of its construction.

Though Obama and his foundation have rejected neighbors’ calls to sign a binding agreement for community benefits and housing protections, they have made promises on their own accord.

The foundation is reserving 35 percent of presidential center construction jobs for South and West siders, awarding half of the construction contracts to minority-owned, women-owned and other “diverse firms,” and publicizing its progress toward goals.

The center’s placement in Jackson Park is the subject of a years-long legal challenge from nonprofit Protect Our Parks.

The nonprofit sued the Obama Foundation, the city and federal officials in April, alleging environmental, land use and historic preservation reviews did not follow federal regulations.

The suit came two weeks before the Supreme Court declined to hear a previous lawsuit aiming to block the center’s construction in Jackson Park.

“We expect the same small group will … try to get a restraining order to keep us from going forward, but we are very confident we’re on solid legal footing,” Jarrett said Friday.

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