Eight months after unveiling designs for the Chicago Presidential Center, the Obama Foundation has awarded a $300 million construction contract to a collective of five firms. The firms — known collectively as the Lakeside Alliance — are mostly African American-owned, the Chicago Tribune reports. The foundation’s decision follows four months of interviews and investigation into the companies’ hiring records and charitable giving histories “to determine if they would truly commit to inclusive hiring and a diverse workforce.”
“We spent a lot of time on this decision,” Michael Strautmanis, the foundation’s vice president for civic engagement, told the Tribune. “We probably could have gotten this done six months ago if we had done business as usual — which is hire a majority firm, ask them to hire minority partners and move on. But (former) President Barack Obama wants to take as many opportunities as we can find to make a real and lasting impact.”
As Next City has reported, the Obama Foundation has been criticized for choosing to locate the former president’s library in an existing park (Jackson Park, on Chicago’s South Side) in a city with a shortage of public parkland. Local leaders have also voiced concerns that the massive redevelopment project will inflate rents and lead to displacement without benefiting the communities immediately adjacent to the park. They’ve called on the foundation for more transparency.
The hiring announcement appears to respond, at least somewhat, to those critiques. From the Tribune:
The announcement comes amid a conversation in Chicago about large-scale developments and who gets to work on them. Historically, African-American-owned firms and minority contractors say they have struggled to secure large contracts, in part because they don’t have the access to capital or the expertise to bid on the projects.
As a result, major construction projects, even those located in African-American and Latino neighborhoods, often don’t enrich the people who live there. And residents have become more vocal about seeing workers come from outside their communities to build structures while they remain jobless.
By selecting a contract manager that is committed to inclusive hiring, the foundation wants to make sure the project benefits local residents and that money spent on construction stays close by. It also wants to give black-owned and women-owned firms the chance to work on a project that can elevate their work portfolios and lead to greater opportunities.
But community activists and residents are reportedly still pressing the foundation to sign a contract guaranteeing well-paid, long-term jobs to local residents. Obama has said that he will not sign such a contract. But the foundation believes that in selecting a construction management team, it has “picked firms that demonstrated they could handle the community’s concerns,” according to the Tribune.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.