Do presidential libraries really pay off for cities?

Nova Safo May 12, 2015

Do presidential libraries really pay off for cities?

Nova Safo May 12, 2015

The waiting is over. Tuesday Morning, President Barack Obama announced the city that will be home to the next presidential library. 

And as expected, the library will be located in Chicago, President Obama’s home town. The University of Chicago, which is working with the Obama Foundation, has proposed to house the library on one of three potential sites on the city’s economically challenged South Side.

There were also bids from Honolulu and New York.

The Obama Foundation will need to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the library — a process that will take at least a couple years.

For the winning city, a presidential library can offer mixed results, in terms of economic development.

In Chicago, Washington Park has been mentioned for months as one of the potential locations for the library. It’s an area characterized by vacant lots and empty buildings. “It’s lacking development and investment,” says Jason Horwitz, a senior consultant at the Anderson Economic Group.

In a study funded by the University of Chicago, Horwitz looked at the potential economic benefit of  building a the library at Washington Park, as well as at other nearby areas.

“There’s going to be a lot of genuinely new investment in this area, and that’s going to provide a real opportunity for others to come in and invest, as well,” Horwitz says.

The University of Chicago wants to place it  where it can have the greatest economic impact.

Horwitz says the development could create more than $200 million in economic activity from dozens of new restaurants and shops, even a hotel, to meet the demands of 800,000 library visitors a year.

“It would be fantastically unprecedented for 800,000 visitors to come to a presidential library,” says Anthony Clark.

Five years ago, Clark was a senior aide in the U.S. House of Representatives, focusing on oversight of the National Archives and presidential libraries. He has since authored a book on presidential libraries, “The Last Campaign.”

“The idea that the library creates an economic boost that lasts indefinitely is just not borne out by the numbers,” says Clark. “In fact, library attendance, no matter which library … declines over time.”

Many of the 13 current presidential libraries have attendance figures in the tens of thousands, or low hundreds of thousands.

“The most-visited temporary exhibit at a presidential library in history was at the Reagan a few years ago, and it wasn’t on the wit and wisdom of the great communicator, it wasn’t on the secrets of the Cold War, it was on the treasures of the Disney vault,” says Clark.

So, the impact the libraries have on local economies is modest, he says.

Benjamin Hufbauer agrees. He is the author of  “Presidential Temples,” and teaches a course about presidential libraries at the University of Louisville.

But Hufbauer points to one big exception: the Clinton library, which was built amidst mostly abandoned warehouses in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“It sparked hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment,” says Hufbauer. “And now it’s a very successful touristy area in downtown Little Rock.”

So why was the Clinton library different?

Horwitz says it’s because the library did not have to do all the heavy lifting in redeveloping the area.

“It certainly seems that the Clinton Library served as an anchor,” says Horwitz. “When a lot of other development was occurring in this downtown area, and it was a compliment to that.”

In other words, presidential libraries can help, but they can’t transform an area all by themselves.

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