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Obama Library Officials Say New Nonprofit Will Guide Economic Benefits

By Sam Cholke | March 20, 2017 5:49am
 Michael Strautmanis, vice president for civic engagement with the Obama Foundation, said economic benefits will come from others because of the library's presence.
Michael Strautmanis, vice president for civic engagement with the Obama Foundation, said economic benefits will come from others because of the library's presence.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

HYDE PARK — Who serves on the board of a nonprofit meant to channel the benefits that flow from Barack Obama’s presidential library into surrounding neighborhoods looks increasingly important with the Obama Foundation indicating it will play more of a passive role in economic development.

The still unnamed nonprofit launched a recruiting effort Saturday at the Woodlawn Summit at the University of Chicago to find charter board members for the nonprofit that will work to determine how Woodlawn, Washington Park and South Shore benefit from the increased attention the presidential center brings to the South Side.

It is still unclear what tactics the nonprofit will take toward capturing the economic benefits from the library, but Obama Foundation officials on Saturday indicated it will let the nonprofit take the lead on that effort.

Michael Strautmanis, the foundation’s vice president for civic engagement, said the the library’s role is to create an economic climate that makes transformative change possible.

“The real potential in economic development this community comes from you, it comes from what others are able to do within this strengthened economic climate,” Strautmanis told the 200 people in the standing-room-only crowd at the School of Social Service Administration, 969 E. 60th St.

He said the foundation sees its role including things like setting standards for participation of minority- and women-owned businesses in the construction of the library in Jackson Park.

That leaves more of the power and more of the responsibility out in the neighborhoods in the hands of the nonprofit, which the Obama Foundation will be a part of along with the University of Chicago, the city, the Washington Park Consortium and the Network of Woodlawn.  

Those groups will help pick who else serves on the board, which is expected to form in June and will shape the nonprofit’s mission. Applications are being accepted through April 30 on the nonprofit’s new website, wwpss.org.

The idea was again floated on Saturday that the nonprofit could act as a land bank for the more than 250 acres of vacant land in Woodlawn and Washington Park, much of it owned by the city. It could also guide what kind of job training and recruitment efforts happen in each neighborhood, what types of development are supported by city tax incentives and what level of accountability there is for new projects.

Such an organization could hold significant influence over how development affects those neighborhoods, particularly since the members so far include major property owners in the neighborhoods.

Joanna Trotter, a senior program officer at the Chicago Community Trust, which is providing a grant to start the nonprofit, said there is already agreement that the nonprofit must work to make sure the residents in the neighborhoods now can stay and take advantage of any future benefits.

“Things are starting to change,” Trotter said. “We need to be a well oiled machine thinking about the market dynamics.”

That sense of urgency has prompted many groups in the past week to renew calls that benefits to the community be put in writing.

RELATED: Should Obama Library Put Community Benefits In Writing? S. Siders Disagree

The Obama Foundation has discreetly quashed such calls in the past, but on Saturday softened its position.

Strautmanis said the foundation was open to having a discussion about a community benefits agreement if only to determine what the expectations were in the neighborhood.

“I think we need to have that discussion,” Strautmanis said.

The crowd, which excluded many of the more vocal activist groups that have so far called for such an agreement, did appear to be in favor of having some sort of a commitment to the community, though it’s unclear now whether that agreement would primarily be with the foundation, the new nonprofit or several institutions and the city.

“Whoever comes in here and controls money has to have a committed agreement with this community,” said Sandra Bivens, executive director of the 51st Street Business Association.

TheRev. Byron Brazier of Apostolic Church of God and the Network of Woodlawn said participating in the nonprofit and forums like the Woodlawn Summit are the way people will be guaranteed a seat at the table when benefits do come to the neighborhoods.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” Brazier said, encouraging people to remain active.