Nike’s Obama Center donation raises questions about corporate branding, public resources

With a federal review of the site resuming, the $5 million pledge underscores uncertainties about the Obama Foundation’s plans.

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A $5 million pledge from Nike to fund a new athletic facility as part of the proposed Obama Presidential Center raises both global and local issues, while a federal review of the proposed site is poised to restart.

Globally, the donation could be viewed as part of the corporation’s ongoing effort to rehabilitate its image, badly tarnished in the 1990s by allegations of sweatshop conditions in Asian factories where its shoes are produced. While the corporation recovered after making changes and signing codes of conduct, questions continue to be raised about treatment of workers in its factories. What will possible corporate branding at the Obama center really signify?

Locally, there’s the question of what the athletic center is doing there, located within hailing distance of an aging Jackson Park fieldhouse and across the street from the relatively new South Side YMCA. Though the Obama Foundation says the center “will invite the community to take part in physical activity year round,” it’s not clear what that means, particularly since the facility will be operated by the foundation, not the park district.

“Frankly, it’s a bad look to have a brand-spanking-new gym in a park where the fieldhouse is crumbling,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks. “We’ve suggested to the Obama Foundation that they raise funds to build a new fieldhouse.” FOTP has also called for replacement of parkland being taken by the proposed center.

There are similar questions about the public library branch proposed for the presidential center. Was it based on an assessment that the area needs a new library branch? Will it draw resources from nearby Coleman and Blackstone branches? And according to Margaret Schmid of Jackson Park Watch, it’s still unclear whether the Obama Foundation will provide ongoing funding for the new branch. 

Meanwhile, the city is moving to restart a federal review of the site — triggered by the use of federal funds in a site listed on the National Registry of Historic Places — by releasing an updated assessment of adverse impacts. Schmid said JPW will be looking for evidence that the city and federal agencies “are willing to engage in actual dialogue about possible alternatives and compromises,” which she says has “been totally absent here to date.” 

Schmid said a central question is whether the city will follow “the appropriate sequence” in addressing adverse impacts — first considering alternatives (like moving the site of the center); then considering minimizing impacts (perhaps scaling back the size of the proposed center, or adjusting plans to eliminate Cornell Drive); and finally mitigating impacts, which can simply involve “some agreed-upon level of data recovery, analysis, curation, and reporting” about the site being affected.

At the first public hearing for the review last year, city officials seemed to indicate that serious consideration of alternatives was off the table, and they were focused on mitigation. That’s not in line with the requirements of the review, Schmid said.