FARGO — Plans for a $150 million Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum got a big boost from the bully pulpit in Bismarck when Gov. Doug Burgum proposed investing heavily in the project.
Burgum advocates tapping the state's Legacy Fund earnings to contribute $50 million to jump-start what he calls “North Dakota’s Mount Rushmore,” a center that would be built near a revamped entrance in Medora to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
“We have an opportunity to do something that no other state has done,” Burgum told The Forum Editorial Board. “This would be a flagship opportunity.”
Famously, Roosevelt spent time in the Badlands beginning in 1883 after his wife and mother died on Valentine’s Day. Roosevelt ranched and hunted in the Badlands, experiences he credited with enabling him to become president.
Roosevelt, whose term in the White House extended from 1901 to 1909, served before the era of presidential libraries, and his voluminous papers are scattered around the country. North Dakota should fill the void and provide a fitting library and museum to honor its adoptive son, Burgum said.
“It would become our Mount Rushmore,” he said, referring to the gigantic sculpture of four presidents, including Roosevelt, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. “It would have more visitors than anyplace else in the state.”
The proposal to invest $50 million from the Legacy Fund, which receives a portion of state oil and gas revenues, was contained in Burgum’s 2019-21 budget recommendations. Revenues for the $5.6 billion Legacy Fund have poured in this year at an average rate of $57.1 million per month.
The project is spearheaded by the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, whose members are working to raise $100 million in private donations.
Bruce Pitts of Fargo, who serves on the foundation board, said a significant investment from the state would help move along the project, which is backed among others by the Roosevelt family and the Theodore Roosevelt Association.
“It is a big shot in the arm for the project, and the governor’s support has been appreciated and instrumental,” Pitts said.
Originally, plans called for a Roosevelt library and museum at Dickinson State University, where the Theodore Roosevelt Center has digitized more than 50,000 of the 150,000 letters written by the prolific 26th president.
The foundation reversed course in May, deciding instead to locate the library and museum in Medora and the Badlands, where Roosevelt repeatedly visited, returning after his ranching days in the 1880s ended.
The decision to move to Medora came after potential major donors repeatedly expressed excitement for a Roosevelt presidential library and museum — but expressed reservations about a Dickinson location, Pitts said.
“I see it as a much better investment in western North Dakota than we had planned originally,” he said. “This really is a national project that will be sited in North Dakota.”
Douglas Ellison, owner of Amble Inn and the Western Edge Bookstore in Medora, said the town’s residents are excited about the prospect of hosting a presidential library for the area’s most famous inhabitant.
“We’re all kind of anxious to learn the details, and I know not all the details are settled yet,” he said.
Although Medora’s permanent population is tiny — 112, according to the 2010 census — the tourist town receives about 250,000 visitors per year, so it's not unnerved by the influx of people the center could draw, Ellison said.
In fact, a major attraction like a presidential library could help Medora realize its long-held aspirations to become a year-round tourist destination, he said. People are not worried that Medora’s charms could suffer if hordes of visitors flock to the town.
“I don’t think that’s a concern,” he said. “At least I don’t hear that talked about by locals.”
A presidential library and museum in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the only national park named after a person, would be an economic boon to the entire state, Burgum and Pitts said. Ellison agreed.
“This would benefit the entire state, at least the entire I-94 corridor, I’m sure,” he said.
In Burgum’s view, a presidential library located within the national park would help North Dakota capture tourists who are traveling to other destinations in the region, including Yellowstone National Park and the Black Hills.
“We’ve got to draw them in,” Burgum said. “We’re not fully utilizing the fact that we have this superb national park.”
Dickinson, although passed over as the site of the library and museum, will benefit significantly as the gateway city to the North Dakota Badlands, said David Borlaug, who was instrumental in establishing the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn.
Although the replica Fort Mandan was located in Washburn, most visitors stayed in Bismarck or Minot, he said. Dickinson will become to the North Dakota Badlands what Rapid City is to the Black Hills, Borlaug said, the city capable of hosting throngs of visitors with hotels, restaurants and other amenities.
“It’s a huge opportunity for Dickinson,” he added. “It’s transformational but in a very positive way.”
The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation will present a study estimating the economic impact the project will generate, Pitts said. Revised conceptual drawings of the library and museum are expected this summer.
If all goes well, he said, construction could start as early as 2021, though it might start later. “There’s just so many unknowns right now,” Pitts said. “I hate to speculate.”
But the questions now center on when, not if, he said. “It’s going to happen.”