Obama's Library: Experts Debate How Much Economic Boost Chicago Can Expect

Presidential library scholars say measuring the benefits can be difficult.

Proponents of building President Obama’s library and museum on Chicago’s South Side say it could provide an economic boost to an area that the president himself once worked to revitalize.

Chicago, which officially won its bid for the library on Tuesday, hopes to replicate the growth in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, where former President Bill Clinton built his presidential center. It transformed a run-down area into shops, restaurants and apartments.

"With a library and a foundation on the South Side of Chicago, not only will we be able to encourage and affect change locally, but what we can also do is to attract the world to Chicago," Obama said in a video statement.

The Barack Obama Foundation on Tuesday said that the University of Chicago's campaign for the library had "brought to life the broad potential and vital energy of the South Side."

Both Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner have talked up the library's economic possibilities, but experts are skeptical that it will draw bigger crowds than any other president's as predicted by boosters. And while such libraries typically result in economic benefits, predicting just how much is tricky, they say.

A report commissioned by the University of Chicago last year found that Obama's library would bring 800,000 visitors a year, 1,900 permanent new jobs and a $220 million economic boost annually for the city.

“I think it is on the optimistic side, though they do have a substantial impact usually,” Benjamin Hufbauer, a professor at the University of Louisville and the author of “Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory," said of the report.

Clinton's library is the best example of a library and museum spurring an economic transformation, he said. An analysis of its effect by the Little Rock-based Boyette Strategic Advisors and released in October found that investment in the downtown areas of Little Rock and North Little Rock have totaled $2.46 billion since the location of the Clinton Presidential Center was announced in 1997.

"Chicago of course is a huge city compared to Little Rock so I'm not sure it's a direct one-to-one comparison," Hufbauer said.

Even if visitors flock to a library in the first years after it opens, the numbers drop off. Last year, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, drew 490,887 people. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, California, was the second most popualr presidential library with 383,470, according to attendance figures provided by the National Archives and Records Administration.

In contrast, the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, drew only 59,499 visitors; the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, 51,703. The least popular presidential library: Herbert Hoover's in West Branch, Iowa, with 43,085 attendees.

"The thing about these presidential libraries is that in general, the first few years it's huge and then it goes into a slow decline," Hufbauer said. "Now, sometimes it can be reinvented, new exhibits can be brought in and it can go up, but the general trend is they open really big and then slowly over time it goes down."

Anthony Clark, another presidential library expert and the author of “The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity & Enshrine Their Legacies," said a library is most popular the year it opens and the year the president dies. He argued that the National Archives' attendance numbers can be inflated because they may include counts of guests at outside events being held at the libraries or other such visitors.

“Some of the libraries are more diligent at being conservative with the numbers and some of them are widely inflated,” he said.

The National Archives and Records Administration responded that the libraries provide data in a number of areas, including attendance at museums and public programs, according to its reporting requirements.

The administration has not done any studies on the libraries’ economic impact.

The report for the University of Chicago by the Anderson Economic Group in Chicago, released a year ago, acknowledged that its prediction for visitors was twice that of the Reagan library, the perennially popular facility. It noted that an Obama library on Chicago's South Side would be an urban institution more accessible to transportation and a large base of visitors and would benefit from Chicago's tourist amenities. Because Obama is the first African-American president, his library would draw tourists for reasons other libraries do not.

Other conclusions: Of the 800,000 visitors, 350,000 would come from outside the Chicago metropolitan area, and they would spend about $110 million annually, including $31 million on food and goods in the neighborhood near the library. That's enough to support 30 new restaurants, 11 new shops and a new hotel, according to the report.

Construction would cost $380 million, a figure the report authors based on the price of other presidential libraries and the Chicago market. The construction costs plus other expenditures would bring the economic impact to $600 million.

Taxes to the city would increase by $5 million a year, according to the prediction.

Clark said that the report on the Clinton center was only one he was aware of that assesses completed libraries.

The Obama library, meanwhile, has sparked controversy over plans to build it in one of the city’s parks — either on 20 acres in Jackson Park along Lake Michigan or on 21 acres in Washington Park next to the university, both designed by the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Some residents have threatened a lawsuit over the loss of parkland, which prompted Illinois lawmakers to change state law to specifically permit presidential libraries provided the public still has access. Rauner signed the bill on Friday.

The University of Illinois, the University of Hawaii and Columbia University in New York were also been in contention for the library.

Emanuel, Obama’s former White House chief of staff, has called the library a unique opportunity, economically and culturally. When the University of Chicago could not assure access to the parkland, he orchestrated the transfer of 20 acres from the Chicago Parks District to the city for the library's use.

"It can be on the South Side. It can be on the West Side, but it cannot be on the Upper West Side of Manhattan," Emanuel said while campaigning for a second term at Chicago City Hall.

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