'Privately funded' Obama presidential library could cost Illinois taxpayers $100 million or more

Erecting a monument to the Obama presidency is a task best handled quickly, before the seeds of disaster planted in Iran, the federal debt, and the FISA Court (among other places) come to full flower.  And despite promises of private funding, taxpayers are going to have to cough up, even in Illinois, a fiscal dead man walking with pension obligations that dwarf the taxing capacity of the state and the City of Chicago.  Barack's plans for a monument to his glory will not be thwarted by mere politicians or community groups.

Lynn Sweet and Tina Sfondeles of the Chicago Sun-Times report:

Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan – the Chicago Democrats who control the Illinois General Assembly – are mapping plans for the state to help pay for infrastructure improvements in and around Jackson Park related to the Obama Presidential Center.

The two leaders "are looking for a commitment from the governor to support road projects that would support the Obama Presidential Center," Cullerton told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday. (snip)

Cullerton said the matter was discussed at a Sept. 19 meeting at the Bilandic Building with the Democrats and the Republican House and Senate leaders, Jim Durkin and Bill Brady.

A source told the Sun-Times that over time, the state could be asked for more than $100 million for transportation improvement projects triggered by construction of the Center.

PBS station WTTW adds:

Sources tell Chicago Tonight there have been bipartisan talks among lawmakers for $100 million in capital funding to assist with the Obama Presidential Center. It is similar to a proposal from House Speaker Michael Madigan a year and a half ago, who had dangled the money in the hopes of helping land the museum. That proposal did not go anywhere, even though the city did ultimately wind up with the winning bid.

At the time, Madigan said it was a good use of state money to honor a son of Illinois and the first African-American president. The Obama Foundation has pledged not to use any public funding for the project, but the mayor has talked about the fact that there would be big infrastructure and transit needs around it, including the closing of Cornell Drive. That's the six-lane highway that the campus would be built over. The city has proposed to realign other streets in the area to handle the excess traffic.

There have also been rumblings in the community about possibly extending the 63rd Street Green Line CTA branch all the way to Jackson Park, along with other transit or infrastructure upgrades that would need to happen to make the museum possible. The Obama Foundation maintained that the actual building itself would be free of any taxpayer funding.

"Construction and maintenance will be funded by private donations and no taxpayer money will go to the foundation," said Obama Foundation spokesperson Kate Berner.

A hundred million dollars is a lot of taxpayer money to commemorate a man who wasn't even born in Illinois and who no longer lives there.  D.C., New York, and Hawaii all have charms that Illinois lacks, as far as Mr. and Mrs. O are now concerned.  But supporters of the monument to the first African-American president want no burdens placed upon the library. For instance:

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who will have the center built in her ward in Jackson Park, said at her ward meeting this week that she won't support a community benefits agreement if the idea comes to the City Council.

Activists at a Sept. 21 rally announced an unnamed alderman would introduce an ordinance to City Council in October that would push the city to address rising property costs for seniors and low-income residents who currently live in Woodlawn and other neighborhoods around the center's campus, commit the center to local hiring goals during construction and other issues.

Frankly, these are the sort of demands that always come up when any major project is announced. Often, they are made in the name of racial justice, when the builders are perceived as rich and white.  The Obamas may be rich, and Barack may be half white, but different rules apply:

"We haven't even waited to see what unfolds before we come out with demands," Hairston told activists. "You're getting caught up in a name instead of what the end product is."

Without Hairston, the ordinance will have a difficult time getting through the Council, according to Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former alderman.

The Chicago Tribune editorial board is not amused:

Barack Obama's connection with Chicago's African-American community is solid and enduring. Nevertheless, it's being tested, thanks to a cluster of South Side community groups. They demand a contract to lock in benefits they anticipate from the planned Obama Presidential Center. The leader who got his start as a community organizer now finds himself on the receiving end of community activism. It's a new role for Obama, who in the 1980s was handing out leaflets and training activists in church basements.

What do South Siders surrounding the proposed Obama Center in Jackson Park want? It's quite a list: The majority of jobs generated by the center would be set aside for South Siders, especially youths, seniors, ex-offenders and people who reside in low-income housing. The groups also want "a significant, guaranteed" amount of affordable housing built around the center. Also job training programs, the restoration of a bus route, improvements to the Metra Electric line, and an assurance that development spurred by the center won't displace longtime residents.

All of this, they say, should be cemented by a "community benefits agreement," a pact between developer and community that maps out a project's benefits and locks them in with a binding document. A CBA in Los Angeles for the Staples Center, home of the Lakers, gave the community a job training program, affordable housing, park improvements and extra residential parking. A similar pact in Pittsburgh for the Penguins' new hockey arena produced $8.3 million in jobs and neighborhood improvements.

Does anyone actually believe that Barack Obama will be held to the same standards as others?  When has that ever happened?

Hat tip: Peter von Buol


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