June 28, 2018; Chicago Tribune

The Obama Foundation has retained a firm and hired a staff member to ensure that those who build the Obama Presidential Center reflect the community where it will sit. Specifically, Ernest R. Sawyer Enterprises, the city’s largest Black-owned urban development consulting firm, has been hired to ensure that the project achieves its goals to hire women and people of color in the surrounding neighborhoods to work on the project.

Additionally, Jacqueline Gomez, who formerly was director of contract compliance for Cook County, will act “as a point person to make sure that at least half of the subcontracts awarded on the project go to minority- or women-owned firms, and agencies owned by veterans, residents with disabilities or workers that identify as LGBTQ,” reports Lolly Bowean in the Chicago Tribune.

The Presidential Center plans to break ground in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Jackson Park this year, but the project has generated controversy as neighborhood and community activists fear that the center will be a force for gentrification.

Some residents remain skeptical, as the Obama Foundation has refused to sign a community benefits agreement, or CBA. A CBA is a legally binding contract that requires developers to consider and contribute to enhancing the communities in which they operate. Such an agreement might create a property tax freeze—or at least a “circuit breaker” provision that limits property tax increases for residents who cannot afford them. In this way, rising taxes from increased property values don’t force longtime residents out. Additionally, a community benefit agreement is often used to ensure that developers invest in new affordable housing and hire within the community.

As community activist Paul Brown told WGN in May, “We are for the Obama Center. We just don’t want to get displaced.”

While stopping short of making such written commitments, the announcement of construction hiring targets is one of a number of steps that the Obama Foundation has taken to allay resident concerns. In March, the Obama Foundation announced a partnership with the nearby University of Chicago to sponsor 25 master student public policy fellows who will provide support to local neighborhoods. In May, the Obama Foundation announced it would bring a branch of the Chicago Public Library onto its campus, welcoming local residents to use the Center’s facilities on a day-to-day basis.

Projections say that the Presidential Center will create 5,000 construction jobs during its development and 2,500 permanent positions thereafter.—Danielle Holly