Lawmakers push for Obama library

By Metro Editor

With the June 16 submission deadline quickly approaching, state legislators are pulling out all the stops to boost Chicago’s chance of being selected to house the Barack Obama Presidential Library—but not all lawmakers are on board with the effort.

During an April 17 hearing, the House of Representatives Executive Committee approved a bill to allocate $100 million in state funding to construct the Obama library, if it comes to Chicago, despite the absence of all four Republican committee members, said Committee Spokesman Rep. Ed Sullivan (R–Mundelein). The measure is expected to make Chicago an appealing library location, but Republicans are outraged by the proposal to fund the library with state dollars in light of the state’s large deficit.

To satisfy the Republican members who demanded a say, the Executive Committee will vote on the measure again during an April 30 hearing, at which all nine committee members will be present.

“There [have] never been state funds used for a presidential library,” Sullivan said. “Illinois is not in a good financial situation to put $100 million into anything with pension disasters and $6 billion in late bills.”

However, supportive Democrats argue that $100 million is a small investment considering the revenue the presidential library is expected to generate, said Rep. Mary Flowers (D–Chicago), a sponsor of the bill.

Flowers said because Obama is the first black president, tourists from around the world would flock to Chicago. She said if the library were located in Chicago, it would provide an economic boost to not only the city, but the entire state.

“With all due respect to my [Republican] colleagues, maybe they have just been busy lately or they are very concerned with the state of the economy, but I’m sure if we were to step outside our safety zones and realize the returns we would get on our dollars, it’s like buying a 50-cent scratch-off lottery ticket and winning $1 million—that’s how much investment we would get,” Flowers said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, said he wants Chicago to be the chosen location, and because it is where Obama began his political career, it would be the most logical choice. He testified at the committee hearing, supporting state funding for the library, and has said the city plans to submit a proposal.

Although Chicago plans to submit a proposal, the city has yet to decide on a location. The University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Chicago State University announced they would submit proposals. However, Emanuel said during a Jan. 24 news conference that Chicago will only submit one proposal, not several.

Flowers said the library would be most profitable if it were located on the South Side. She said putting it in a blighted neighborhood such as Englewood or Bronzeville would provide economic opportunities that the areas desperately need.

“Englewood and other places on the South Side have a very long way to go, but this would be an opportunity for revitalization,” Flowers said. “I see endless opportunities that we could have if it is was situated at the right place.”

Karen Riley, executive director of the Business Leadership Council, said the facility would have a positive impact regardless of where the city proposes to build it.

“If the library was on the South Side, it could serve as somewhat of an engine to help rebuild and give an economic boost to the communities that have really suffered as a result of the economy going south,” Riley said. “The economic recovery on the South Side is much lower and there is much greater loss.”

Riley said she supports using state funding to assure Chicago is chosen as the site of the library. However, critics of the measure maintain that it is an irresponsible financial commitment.

“I don’t think in any financial situation taxpayer dollars should go to the construction of the library, let alone in Illinois,” said Jane McEnaney, government affairs manager at Illinois Policy Institute. “We are not in the position of throwing taxpayer dollars at something that may or may not be built here.”

Columbia University, where Obama received his bachelor’s degree, is expected to submit a proposal, as is the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where the president was born.

The Obama library will be the 14th presidential library, a tradition that began in 1939 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt submitted his presidential documents to the federal government. The Barack Obama Foundation, established in January 2014, will review all the submissions and work with Obama to select a location, which will be announced in early 2015. Construction is expected to begin in 2017, according to the foundation’s website.