The Obama Center, as projected at McCormick Place Credit: Deanna Isaacs

Former president Barack Obama, in a surprise appearance before a large audience last night at an Obama Foundation public meeting at McCormick Place, made two points clear:

There will be no community benefits agreement for the construction of the Obama Presidential Center.

And progress on the center needs to move past the debate stage. 

Obama reiterated his loyalty to the city’s south side and his goal for the center to be an active hub there, a place where the next generation of leaders will be recruited and mentored. He said the center will attract more than 700,000 annual visitors, and will bring $3 billion in economic activity to the Chicago area.

But in regard to the binding community benefits agreement that a coalition of groups has been asking for, Obama had this to say: “I respect the intent, but we’re not coming in here as a for-profit organization. I’m raising a bunch of money. I’m not getting a salary from the foundation. Michelle and my motivations are entirely to see the community benefit.

“If we sign with one, two, or five organizations, they’re not representing everybody on the south side. Next thing you know, you’ve got 40 or 50 organizations—all wanting to be decision makers. We’re not going to do that.” 

As for continuing debate about the design and location of the center:  “There are some people who are never going to be happy.  It’s the nature of a project of this size,” Obama said. “We’re going to be fairer than fair,  but, at some point, our intention is to get moving on this.”

His speech was followed by breakout meetings devoted to specific topics such as traffic, design, and economic impact.