Your NPR news source
Former President Barack Obama speaks at South Shore Brew

Former President Barack Obama talks with Jennifer Barnes, center, owner of South Shore Brew; Cheryl Gill, right, owner of Dust ‘Em Clean Janitorial Service; and other small business owners during a surprise visit at South Shore Brew.

Natalie Moore

President Obama Surprises Local Business Owners During A Visit To A South Side Coffeehouse

In his first visit to Chicago since 2020, former President Barack Obama surprised a small group of South Side business owners on Tuesday to engage them about the forthcoming presidential center.

The Obama Presidential Center is set to break ground in Jackson Park this fall after legal challenges tried to stop the project and a four-year federal review process because of the historic nature of the park. Even after the federal court dismissed a lawsuit in 2019, Protect our Parks filed again in April citing the center would adversely affect the park.

“From my perspective, we’re going to be bringing a lot of money and visitors and resources into the community. Part of the reason Michelle and I wanted to locate our museum here — even though I’ll be honest with you, it created more headaches than it would’ve if it had gone some place quiet,” Obama joked.

Five business owners had been privately meeting with Obama Foundation president Valerie Jarrett at South Shore Brew, a coffeehouse on the corner of 71st Street and Yates Boulevard. Obama walked in to gasps from onlookers. He pointed out how important the neighborhood is to his family. South Shore is the neighborhood where Michelle Obama grew up, and across the street from the coffeehouse is the South Shore Cultural Center where the couple married in 1992.

The presidential center — celebrating the nation’s first Black president — is a campus that will include a museum, public library branch, forum and children’s play area. The center’s construction will cost $500 million and take four years to complete. The foundation is behind the construction and predicts that up to 5,000 direct and indirect jobs will be created during and after building.

Woodlawn, Washington Park and South Shore are the neighborhoods expected to see the biggest economic boost. The business owners who met with Obama were Jennifer Barnes, owner of South Shore Brew; Cheryl Gill, owner of Dust ‘Em Clean Janitorial Services; Eric Williams, owner of The Silver Room; Tanya Love Trice, CEO of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce and owner of The Slab BBQ; and Donna Hampton Smith, executive director of the Washington Park Chamber of Commerce.

Hampton Smith asked Obama how to get around unions that create barriers for training and getting young people into jobs. Obama acknowledged that has historically been true, but he said it’s important to get young people in the pipeline.

“We’ve given this thought from the beginning and actually put together an inclusion counsel advisory group. We have said you have to have a plan, and we’ve been negotiating with the unions and the trades,” Obama said.

Earlier this year, the foundation announced a new workforce initiative to ensure Black and brown access to construction jobs. The goals are for 35% of the construction workforce to come from neighborhoods such as Woodlawn, Austin and Englewood. The Obama Foundation says it’s committed to having 50% of the project’s sub-contracts going to minorities, which is double the city’s goal.

Obama said he wants to avoid this diversity pitfall with construction and other contracts: “You get a group that says it’s doing it and looks like the right face and then you look underneath and it’s not really what you thought it was.”

To help recruit women, young people and the formerly incarcerated, the workforce initiative is partnering with the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT), HIRE360, IBEW-NECA Technical Institute, Revolution Workshop and St. Paul’s Community Development Ministries. And to help, the foundation is putting in $850,000 to train 400 new apprentices from the city’s South and West sides. Money will also go toward stipends for things like transportation, child care and union fees.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.