A charity group that helps homeless military veterans on Chicago’s South Side says the city is trying to take control of the meager facility to make way for the restaurants, shops and other commercial venues that would complement the proposed Obama presidential library and museum.
Group leaders said the RTW Veterans Center is the last privately-owned property on a stretch of S. King Boulevard near the proposed Washington Park site for the Barack Obama Presidential Center and that city building inspectors unexpectedly arrived last April to find an overwhelming 32 code violations at the facility.
“We don’t appreciate being muscled out and put in the situation of having to negotiate from a position of despair,” facility center Director Jah Ranu Menab told FoxNews.com on Saturday.
Menab thinks the University of Chicago, which is working with the Obama Foundation to bring the presidential center to the South Side, is also part of an apparent effort to ultimately force the facility into receivership.
The fate of the veterans’ facility -- which officials say serves more than 3,000 meals monthly -- may well be decided Tuesday, when officials return to Cook County Circuit Court for a hearing on the efforts to fix the building’s problems.
Menab admits that the facility is in disrepair, with some violations related to a fire hazard, rats’ nests and raw sewage flowing onto the basement floor.
However, he says the situation, which includes fines of $16,000 daily, looks like an attempted “land grab” and that the prestigious university, where Obama was a law professor, “exerts a tremendous amount of influence” over the city and its future.
The university strongly denies any involvement in the city's dealings with the center and its building and on Friday issued the following statement:
“The mission of providing support for veterans is extremely important, and numerous University of Chicago community members have volunteered their time at the RTW Veterans Center. The university is not engaged in discussions regarding the center's property and has no plans to purchase it."
Veterans’ center co-founder Daniel “Doc” Habeel, a Vietnam War veteran, acknowledged Saturday that people associated with the university have indeed volunteered time. But he also expressed uncertainty about the university’s involvement.
“lt’s hard to say because everybody’s hiding their hand,” Habeel said.
Center officials argue the state’s budget crisis has created an increased demand for their services, including serving three meals daily on every day of the week, and that they’re open to negotiating for a fair selling price, to perhaps relocate to a better, nearby facility.
To be sure, each side has suggested the other is perhaps battling in the media for the best price for the property, about a half-block from the proposed Washington Park site.
The not-for-profit facility, which receives no government funding, cited in a press release Wednesday a history of building inspectors in other places forcing a worn-out building into receivership so a prospective developer is “eventually able to acquire the property without having to negotiate.”
The city says the fines are not being enforced and that the case landed in court because numerous 311 calls led inspectors to visit the facility, where they learned about the severity of the problems, including a structurally unsafe porch.
Nevertheless, the city on Friday expressed a continued willingness to work with the facility, while also pointing out that the court in December granted a six-month extension to fix the property, including the porch that remains unrepaired.
“The city has been diligently working with the RTW Veterans Center for the past year to address outstanding building code violations,” the city said in a statement to FoxNews.com. “And the city will continue to work with the organization to ensure repairs are completed and that the site is safe and accessible for veterans.”
A 2014 study commissioned by the university found the presidential facility would have about 800,000 visitors a year, which would have an annual economic impact of $31 million on the neighborhood economy, enough to support a new hotel, 11 new retail outlets and 30 new restaurants.
The Obama Foundation is scheduled to decide by this summer on either the Washington or Jackson Park proposals, both on the South Side.
The foundation sent a letter in November to the facility praising its efforts in helping veterans and expressing a willingness to work together.
“The Obamas have a long history of passionate support for our veterans and military families,” the letter in part states. “I want to personally thank you for the work you do. … We are humbled by your invitation to join your weekly meeting and look forward to working with you in the future.”