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Hawaii fights for Obama presidential center

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the conclusion of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit on Nov. 13, 2011.

What’s essentially the last undeveloped piece of Honolulu’s waterfront sits on seven acres, is worth $75 million and is a developer’s dream. Breathtaking views unfold all around, from the vast Pacific to Diamond Head’s iconic peak. Brilliantly colored birds linger in the trees. The area’s name has the vowel-richness one expects from Hawaii: Kakaako (pronounced KAH-cuh-AH-coh).

It’s easy to imagine pricey condos or luxurious hotels rising here. But if a group of influential local business and community leaders has its way, this prime real estate will be the foundation of President Obama’s legacy.

The president still has three years in office, but eventually his thoughts will turn to what comes afterward. He’ll need a plan for the must-have for all former White House occupants, the presidential center: a library to house his papers, a museum to burnish his image and, probably, a foundation and educational program to quench any enduring thirst for public service.

Chicago is a natural choice as the birthplace of his political career. But his actual birthplace wants in on the action, eager for the jobs and economic impact it could create. Though an underdog because of its isolated geography, Hawaii is pushing ahead with an unusual public campaign for piece of President Obama’s post-presidency.

Hawaii can’t compete with Chicago’s middle-American location. But the land set aside for President Obama has views one won’t find on the banks of Lake Michigan.

“It is the most incredible piece of land,” says Connie Lau, CEO of Hawaiian Electric Industries. “In Hawaii, land is so precious, that to have a site like this, something very, very special should be done with it.”

Lau is among the prominent local business leaders behind the campaign for an Obama presidential center. She gets a visual reminder of the potential every day. The banking and energy executive can see the proposed waterfront site, along with just about everything else in town, from the commanding heights of her 30th floor office.

She and other organizers speak openly about the campaign to convince the president and his advisors to choose Hawaii. The effort has a website making its case. The highly public wooing is quite atypical. Mostly, presidential centers come about away from the spotlight.

University of Hawaii professor Robert Perkinson is leading the effort to land a presidential center. On a tour of the site, he repeatedly pointed out that it’s one of Hawaii’s best spots for bodysurfing, a pastime of the president. The campaign hopes that the strong feelings the president has for Hawaii, created in his childhood and renewed with yearly Christmas visits here, will sway him to build a presidential center here.

Hawaii’s beaches and waves are a tourist magnet that’s the envy of other states. But apart from Pearl Harbor, its cultural and historical offerings are relatively thin. Landing a presidential center would change that and could inspire a cultural district to spring up around it.

“Eight million people a year come to Hawaii,” Perkinson explains. “When it rains, they’re often looking for something educational and enlightening to do.”

The bigger hope that a center could spark new development the way the Clinton library did for Little Rock. City officials there credit it with more than $2.25 billion in economic impact, bringing jobs and more than 300,000 visitors a year. The construction alone would be a major boost for Hawaii. The recently opened George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum cost a quarter of a billion dollars.

The president has overwhelming support in Hawaii, and it’s hard to find an islander against the idea of an Obama center. But some are wary about the economic dividend. Local economist Paul Brewbaker expressed his concerns at Island Snow, which serves shaved ice to the Obamas when they’re in town. Wearing a colorful aloha shirt -- acceptable business wear in Hawaii -- he says he would love to see an Obama center here, but cautioned that big projects don't always deliver a big economic lift.

“I think it’s important here in Hawaii for people to keep pushing to achieve the dream, but maybe to temper their expectations,” Brewbaker says.

Hawaii’s location makes it a tougher sell than Chicago, which is a day’s drive for tens of millions of Americans. That’s a reality that Honolulu organizers don’t deny.

“I think the thought was that the formal presidential library would be in Chicago,” says Jim Scott, president of the elite Punahou School, where the president -- then known as Barry -- graduated in 1979.

A presidential library has to be easily accessible to scholars and visitors, so Chicago has a clear advantage. That’s why Honolulu’s leaders named their public campaign carefully: The Hawaii Presidential Center Initiative, not a presidential library.

“If you called it a library, there might be only one library,” Connie Lau explains. “Whereas with a center, that concept is a little bit broader.”

If, as many inside and outside Hawaii expect, Chicago lands the presidential library, an Obama foundation or other elements could still be in Hawaii. This would give President Obama a nice base of operations in an area he loves.

“He could spend his winters in Hawaii; Chicago in spring and the summer,” Scott suggests.

The Honolulu-Chicago competition is a departure from the history of presidential libraries, which began with Franklin Roosevelt. While various sites within a president’s home state vie to host, an interstate rivalry is something different.

“President Obama is an unusual case because he really does have roots in Hawaii and in Illinois and that is rare,” says University of Louisville professor Ben Hufbauer, author of a book on presidential libraries.

While Ronald Reagan may have been born in Illinois, Hufbauer says a Reagan presidential library outside California would have been unthinkable. (He adds that he would be happy to visit an Obama center in Hawaii. For research, of course.)

But like a lot of Americans today, President Obama can credibly call more than one state home. He hasn’t said where he'll put his library or any part of a presidential center. Hawaii is working hard to get him to spread the wealth.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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