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How Will the Obama Library Impact the Area Around Jackson Park?

Clues may be found in the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Obama Foundation and community leaders gather in front of the Museum of Science and Industry to officially announce the Jackson Park location of the Obama Presidential Center.   Photo: Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune

Even before the Obama Foundation formally announced it had chosen Jackson Park as the site of the long-anticipated presidential library, the main buzz has been around potential economic benefits to the area.

“We are proud that the center will help spur development in an urban area and we can’t wait to forge new ways to give back to the people of Chicago who have given us so much,” Obama said in a prepared statement.

But drawing connections between big cultural institutions and nearby growth is a complex task. The Tribune recently did an interesting analysis, talking to community members and property owners in the Woodlawn neighborhood. And in 2014, the University of Chicago commissioned an economic impact study and found, among other boons, the library could create 1,900 permanent new jobs and increase city tax revenues by $5 million annually.

That study also pointed to an interesting comparison, with relation to how programming (education, speakers, conferences, etc.) can be part of a presidential library’s legacy: Bill Clinton’s facility in Little Rock, Arkansas, which “[contributed] to the revival of that city’s blighted downtown and [sparked] local investment thanks to its ability to attract tourism to the city.”

Can the Clinton Library teach us anything about how to make the most out of a presidential library? At least based on median income, the two locations are pretty comparable: before the Clinton library was built in 2004, the median income in the 72201 ZIP code of Little Rock was $26,667, or $38,582 when adjusted for inflation. In the 60649 ZIP code that encompasses Jackson Park and much of the South Shore neighborhood, the current median income sits at $27,723. (Median income of the neighboring ZIP code 60637, including Woodlawn and Hyde Park, is similar.)

It’s not a perfect match, but the numbers are closer than, for instance, George W. Bush’s library (Dallas, Texas; median income $115,972), George H.W. Bush’s library (College Station, Texas; median income $70,776), or Ronald Reagan’s library (Simi Valley, California; median income: $94,173).

In 2014, the Litter Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce sponsored a study to analyze the economic and societal impacts of the Clinton center. Boyette Strategic Advisors did the leg work and found the center—which includes the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, the research and archives center, the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and the Arkansas offices of the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation—had led to several developments. From the study:

  • More than $2 billion has been spent investing in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock since the center’s location was announced in 1997. The total economic impact of construction is $3.3 billion.
  • Area attractions have expanded, including new exhibits to the Little Rock Zoo, improvements to Riverfront Park and renovations to the Museum of Discovery.
  • Six hotels have either opened or been announced.
  • The Central Arkansas Library System expanded its programming in downtown Little Rock, including the development of the Arkansas Studies Institute and Cox Creative Center.
  • More than $62 million was invested in the development of the Arkansas River Trail System, which starts at the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge and goes throughout central Arkansas.

“I think it’s the combination of all those things together that it really created the economic impact on the area, notwithstanding the social impact on the area that the center brought to the area that wouldn’t be here 10 years ago,” Jay Chessir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, says.

Chessir says the presidential center has been a catalyst for new development and redevelopment in an area that was previously occupied by warehouses. New businesses have flocked to the downtown area, and new entertainment venues, restaurants and bars have flourished along the riverfront.

“It has changed significantly, but it’s a mix of what was here and what’s new here,” Chessir says. “It strengthened the area in terms of people, opportunities, and place to live and work.”

Of course, downtown Little Rock is fundamentally different from Woodlawn and South Shore, which are 10 miles south of Chicago’s downtown, notes Lauren Nolan, economic development planner at the UIC’s Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement. “It’s important remember that Woodlawn is highly residential so there’s different metrics of success,” she says.

“Potential for commercial development is limited,” Janet Lynn Smith, co-founder of the Voorhees Center and an associate professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, adds.

Nolan and Smith do see potential for Chicago to replicate some of Little Rock’s success. The area around the University of Chicago at 53rd Street has seen some development similar to Little Rock. In 2013, the Hyatt Place opened, and just north of Regents Park, the Ramada Inn finished its renovations. In 2015, DNAinfo reported the university was looking to build a boutique hotel on 53rd Street, and starchitect Jeanne Gang is designing a hotel/apartments project nearby, too.

“That might be tapped for people who might not want to [stay] downtown,” Smith says, referring to students coming to campus for visits, university guests, and now potential library visitors.

Nolan and Smith also highlight a problem that already vexes the neighborhoods: how to get visitors to interact with the community. Smith says most visitors to the University of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry drive or bus down and have very little need to go into Woodlawn and other surrounding neighborhoods.

“It’s a question of where development will happen and how much,” she says.

Neither Smith nor Nolan see the neighborhood at risk for gentrification, given the institutions already in the area, but they do hope that library leaders will promise to employ local residents and make moves to preserve housing affordability.

“It’d be very useful for the library and the community to meet sooner rather than later,” Smith says.

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