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Foundation launched to pick site for Obama presidential library

Updated: January 31, 2014 6:07PM



WASHINGTON — The first steps toward building President Barack Obama’s library and museum were announced on Friday with the launch of a foundation to oversee the competitive selection process with the target date of picking a site early in 2015.

Martin Nesbitt, Obama’s close friend who will run the effort with two other Obama associates, told me in an interview they are committed to a “thoughtful, consistent, fair and transparent” process with the ultimate choice left to Obama and first lady Michelle.

“We have no preconceived idea about what these proposals will look like. We want to create a blank canvass, create sort of a white canvas with some guiding principles that allow people to respond in a thoughtful and creative way and we will evaluate them when they come in,” Nesbitt said.

Incorporation papers for the newly created Barack H. Obama Foundation were filed Friday in Washington, D.C.

The foundation is led by Chicagoan Nesbitt, the co-CEO of The Vistria Group and treasurer of Obama’s two White House campaigns; Julianna Smoot, a co-chair of the 2012 re-election bid and the 2008 National Finance Director and J. Kevin Poorman, the Wilmette businessman who took over several companies run by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker when she stepped down to join Obama’s cabinet.

Nesbitt has been working on the project quietly for months, meeting with a variety of potentially interested parties and visiting presidential libraries around the nation for a project that could eventually cost more than $500 million. Because of the enormous price tag, it is in Nesbitt’s interest to encourage competition.

Obama asked Nesbitt to take on the duty of running the foundation last summer, and I broke the news that Nesbitt and Smoot would helm a foundation last July.

And though Nesbitt has ties to the University of Chicago — which has been working quietly on a bid for more than a year — he told me, “We are going to have a transparent process that creates a level playing field for all potential respondents. We have no preconceived idea of where this library will end up being and you know, the interested parties will be judged on the merits of their responses and that’s that,” he said.

As for contenders, Nesbitt said, “It is a universe of any party that is interested in offering to be the host. It may include community organizations, developers, academic institutions, cities, it can be a variety of potential respondents.”

The foundation has an aggressive timetable: In the coming days a “Request for Qualifications” will be released, a very broad outline of criteria for the site selection process. While some entities may be solicited to submit an “RFQ,” Nesbitt said the RFQ submission process will be posted on the foundations’ website. Information about the RFQ will posted at obamapresidentialfoundation.org.

In May, the foundation will issue “Request for Proposals,” which is the call for comprehensive packages to be submitted with a decision made by the start of 2015.

Nesbitt, Smoot and Poorman issued a highly instructive vision statement about what they — and the president — have in mind for the institution. They are looking to leverage the project to generate an economic boom for the area where it is located.

The foundation is “tasked with planning the development of a Presidential Library that reflects President Obama’s values and priorities throughout his career in public service: expanding economic opportunity, inspiring an ethic of American citizenship, and promoting peace, justice and dignity throughout the world.

“Additionally, the foundation envisions a facility that, through its mission, initiatives and physical and virtual presence, can become an anchor for economic development and cultivate a strong relationship with the library’s surrounding community.”

Under the federal laws dealing with presidential libraries, non-profit foundations must raise funds for construction and operating endowments. Eventually, the National Archives and Records Administration steps in to run the library.

Nesbitt said the Obamas will not do any fundraising for the foundation while still in office. Donations over $200 will be disclosed on a quarterly basis. The foundation will not take money from any non-U.S. sources or currently registered federal lobbyists.

The foundation — organized as a 501(c)(3) under the IRS code, meaning donations will be tax-exempt — will handle most of the chores associated with establishing a presidential library. Nesbitt and his colleagues will periodically be briefing the president, the first lady and deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel told me last week he wants the city to submit one unified bid.

“With President Obama’s deep roots here in the city — his hometown and where he launched his public life — Chicago is undeniably a natural fit for the Obama Presidential Library and Museum. Though we’re excited to welcome the president home, we are not resting on our laurels and will put forward a competitive proposal so that his choice is an easy one,” Emanuel said in a statement Friday.

The main interested parties so far:

♦ The University of Chicago, with a plethora of strong ties to Obama and a powerhouse fund-raising ability, pushing for a site on the mid-South Side.

U. of Chicago President Robert Zimmer said in a statement, “I strongly believe the Obama Presidential Library would be ideal for one of our neighboring communities on the South Side of Chicago. Such a location would reflect the personal and professional lives of the Obamas, as well as their commitments to society.

“A presidential library would mark a watershed moment for the South Side, catalyzing significant and sustained economic opportunity in an area poised to make the most of such promise. It would bring cultural and programmatic opportunities for all of Chicago’s residents and visitors.

“The University of Chicago is committed to working in partnership with the City of Chicago, our neighbors, civic leaders, and cultural and educational institutions to develop a plan that benefits the city and the nation.”

♦ Columbia University in New York, with a 17-acre site near its upper West Side campus and big fund-raising ability.

“Columbia is proud to count President Obama among its alumni. We look forward to learning more about the plans of the Barack H. Obama Foundation for the development of a library reflecting the President’s values and priorities,” spokesman Robert Hornsby said in a statement.

♦ The University of Illinois-Chicago, which has a variety of committees working on plans and the support of university board chief Chris Kennedy.

♦ The University of Hawaii, leading a consolidated group of civic and government interests.

U. of Hawaii professor Robert Perkinson, who is leading the Hawaii push, told me the frame may be to consider the bidding process “an opportunity for collaboration. . . . to give the president two bases of operation in two or more citites.

♦ Chicago State University, where the drive is being advised by former state Senate President Emil Jones (D-Chicago), Obama’s mentor when he was a state senator in Springfield.

“We look forward to meeting with the Foundation leaders, as well as with Mayor Emanuel and other public officials as we work towards finalizing our plan,” CSU spokesman Tom Wogan said in a statement.

“We feel it is altogether fitting that the symbol of the Obama legacy, the Presidential Library, be housed in the very community where his work began,” Wogan said.

♦ Daniel McCaffery, the real estate developer who is pitching a site on the far Southeast Side, the former location of U.S. Steel. He wants to forge a strategic alliance with the University of Chicago to site the library on 60 lakefront acres he will donate.

“There are more than a handful of entities that have expressed an interest. We suspect that there will be even more . . . that might ultimately end up responding,” Nesbitt said.

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet



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