Collective of Diverse Construction Firms Hired to Manage Obama Center Construction

Lolly Bowean, Chicago Tribune, January 5, 2018

A collective of five construction firms—most of them owned by African-Americans—has been hired to manage the building of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.

The decision came after four months during which foundation officials conducted interviews and probed the firms’ hiring records and charitable giving histories to determine if they would truly commit to inclusive hiring and a diverse workforce.

The awarding of the contract—valued at $300 million—to the group, called the Lakeside Alliance, is significant both because it signals that construction could start soon, and because it is the foundation’s first chance to demonstrate how it believes the project will transform the South Side both physically and economically.

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The Lakeside Alliance is made up of Turner Construction Co., Powers & Sons Construction Co., UJAMAA Construction, Brown & Momen and Safeway Construction Co.

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The announcement comes amid a conversation in Chicago about large-scale developments and who gets to work on them. Historically, African-American-owned firms and minority contractors say they have struggled to secure large contracts, in part because they don’t have the access to capital or the expertise to bid on the projects.

As a result, major construction projects, even those located in African-American and Latino neighborhoods, often don’t enrich the people who live there. And residents have become more vocal about seeing workers come from outside their communities to build structures while they remain jobless.

By selecting a contract manager that is committed to inclusive hiring, the foundation wants to make sure the project benefits local residents and that money spent on construction stays close by. It also wants to give black-owned and women-owned firms the chance to work on a project that can elevate their work portfolios and lead to greater opportunities.

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From the time Obama announced he would place his center on the South Side, officials have said the project would be unique and its impact far-reaching.

So when scoping out developers to work on the site, the foundation wanted to ensure the firms would hire women, veterans, minorities and residents who identify as LGBTQ. They want the construction manager to hire workers from the South and West sides and retain those employees until the project is complete, officials said.

More than half of the financial equity of the contract will go to the African-American-owned firms, while key roles, decision-making positions and strategy development jobs will go to people of color and women, officials said Thursday.

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The leaders of the collective were interviewed by foundation officials multiple times and were asked to turn over documents detailing their hiring records. The firms also presented plans for apprenticeships for high school students and had to show that they patronize minority accountants and invest in minority-owned banks.

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The hiring announcement came as community activists and residents have continued to press the foundation to sign a contract guaranteeing long-term, well-paid jobs to local residents. Some residents who live near the center’s Jackson Park site fear it could lead to increased housing costs, gentrification and displacement.

Obama said he would not sign a contract. But in selecting a construction management team, the foundation said, it picked firms that demonstrated they could handle the community’s concerns.

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