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Business behind presidential libraries

May 13, 2015

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Locations of presidential libraries, courtesy of The National Archives.

Chicago is getting President Barack Obama’s presidential library. That’s not exactly a surprise, given that Obama has deep connections with the city.

But for a few minutes, it looked like the Windy City had some competition from New York, where Obama attended Columbia University, and Hawaii, his home state. In fact, both those places will get outposts of the main Obama research center.

The Obama library will be built by its foundation on one of two sites on the city’s South Side, where the Obama family has a residence. The two possibilities are Jackson Park and Washington Park. That’s where controversy is brewing.

Both parks were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of New York’s Central Park as well as Belle Isle Park in Detroit. CityLab questioned the idea of building on city parkland, especially when there is vacant land available nearby.

This debate over the Obama complex is overshadowing the promised jobs and revenue that the library could create. Construction is expected to last until at least 2020, and the revenue that the library could produce for the surrounding neighborhood is an open question.

As the Chicago Tribune wrote,

Many questions and thorny issues are ahead: how much the surrounding community will benefit, whether longtime residents will be driven out and how the center and public infrastructure surrounding it will be funded.The costly infrastructure work (Mayor Rahm Emanuel) has promised the foundation will come at a time when city and state finances are tight.

There are 13 presidential libraries around the United States, with a number of museums associated with them.

The economic track record of these presidential complexes is worth exploring.

Gerald R. Ford divided his research complex into two parts: the library on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, where he was an undergraduate, and the museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., his adopted hometown.

The Ford museum was a linchpin of development that took place on the Grand River, contributing to a revival of Grand Rapids’ downtown.

In Boston, the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum was a boost to the Dorchester neighborhood, the largest and one of the most diverse in the city. Earlier this year, the $78.4 million Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate joined the waterfront complex.

With presidential libraries stretching across the country, there are story ideas in many communities. Check the attendance figures for your local complex. Most libraries are treasure troves of economic documents related to the era of their president. Journalists can get permission to visit the archives, and find research material.

Here’s the announcement of the Chicago site.


List of President Libraries


  • Micheline Maynard

    Micheline is a contributing columnist at the Washington Post concentrating on business and culture. She has written about flooding in Detroit, tainted water in Benton Harbor, nationwide shortages of restaurant staff, and vaccine hesitancy.

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