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Will Obama's Library Help The South Side? New Group Says That's Their Goal

By Sam Cholke | March 13, 2017 5:37am
 A new nonprofit is in the works that will be charged with making sure Woodlawn, Washington Park and South Shore benefit from the Obama library.
A new nonprofit is in the works that will be charged with making sure Woodlawn, Washington Park and South Shore benefit from the Obama library.
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Wikimedia Commons/Alfred Twu

WOODLAWN — A new nonprofit designed to capture the economic benefits of Barack Obama’s presidential library for the surrounding neighborhoods is now close to launching.

Consultant Next Street, which was hired through a grant from the Chicago Community Trust to research how such a nonprofit would be structured, has started meeting with people in Woodlawn, Washington Park and South Shore about how it will be structured.

“It’s very early in its development and we wanted to make sure we’re getting community input,” Charisse Conanan Johnson, a director with Next Street.

The Trust committed $250,000 to hire Next Street to figure out what kind of organization could best make sure people in Woodlawn, Washington Park and South Shore benefit from the library as speculators move in trying to capitalize on the new institution.

Joanna Trotter, a senior program officer at the trust, said the organization needs to be up and running before the library if it is to help ensure there is equitable development without displacement.

“This is a startup, there’s no staff or even a board, but we’re working quickly,” Trotter said.

So far, the members of the nonprofit are expected to include the Obama Foundation, the University of Chicago, the city, South Shore Works, the Washington Park Consortium and the Network of Woodlawn, which is a joint project between the Apostolic Church of God, University of Chicago, The Woodlawn Organization and other groups.

Trotter said the organizers understand that these organizations are already some of the most powerful institutions in their respective neighborhoods and said the next step is to solicit applications from the community to find people that can broaden and balance out a board that is expected to be 20 people.

Though the nonprofit still has no name, a website is expected to launch within the next two weeks, which will include an application for residents who want to serve on the board.

The next public meeting on the nonprofit will be at 8 a.m. Saturday during the Woodlawn Summit at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, 969 E. 60th St.

The Rev. Torrey Barrett, executive director of the KLEO Center in Washington Park, said he and the Rev. Byron Brazier of Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn, came up with the idea to form the new nonprofit to focus on economic development across neighborhoods when the Obama was still deciding between the two neighborhoods for his library.

“In my mind it wouldn’t replace any organization, but support them because theses communities will need all the help they can get,” Barrett said.

He said the Obama Foundation will focus on the library in Jackson Park and the nonprofit will focus on everything beyond the library’s campus.

The board of the new nonprofit is expected to be in place by June and will then have to figure out what methods it will use to encourage and shape economic development.

Such organizations already exist in some of the surrounding neighborhoods.

The Quad Community Development Corporation in Bronzeville helps developers identify land, navigate the city’s tax incentive programs and hire people from the community, as well as supporting existing businesses with education and finding additional funding.

The South East Chicago Commission based in Hyde Park administers a special service area taxing district, administers beautification and environmental improvement grants and runs a business development center.

A 2015 study by architecture firm Gensler for Woodlawn commissioned by One Woodlawn, an offshoot of work being done by Brazier, came to a similar conclusion as Next Street.

That study found the neighborhood needed to start a new nonprofit focused on economic development.

Gensler recommended the nonprofit act as a land bank, taking control of vacant and city-owned land and funding ongoing revitalization efforts like job training and beautification in the community through the sale and development of that land.

Next Street has not proposed the nonprofit act as a land bank, but has not yet ruled it out and vacant land is prime resource in Woodlawn and Washington Park, but not South Shore.

Woodlawn has an estimated 59 acres of vacant city-owned land, with an additional 85 acres of vacant land owned privately, according to the Gensler study. Washington Park has an estimated 121 acres of vacant land.

Organizations like Quad Community Development Corporation and the South East Chicago Commission seek similar ends but do not formally take control of any property and do not fund their operations through real estate deals.

The institutions involved so far include major property owners in Woodlawn and Washington Park and the University of Chicago and Obama Foundation, which is expected to raise a $1.5 billion endowment, and that hold considerable financial sway.

Next Street has not yet said how the nonprofit should balance leveraging the neighborhoods’ most powerful institutions while avoiding an over-consolidation of power.