Supporters of the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library near Medora have some crucial irons in the fire as 2020 winds down.
The library's board of trustees later this week will choose an architect from three finalists who last month presented design concepts of a library and museum in tribute to the 26th president, who ranched and hunted in the Badlands in the 1880s. The national park gated at Medora, the Old West tourist town, bears Roosevelt's name.
The board also must move to acquire the 60 acres of U.S. Forest Service land eyed for the library's site -- just west of the Medora Musical's Burning Hills Amphitheater. That process could take up to a year and would include an environmental assessment with opportunities for public comment.
And the board is still raising the $100 million for construction. The 2019 Legislature authorized a $50 million operations endowment for the library, but it's only available after private donations are raised to build the facility.
Library CEO Ed O'Keefe declined to say how much money has been raised, beyond that the board expects the full sum to be in hand before the 2021 Legislature convenes in early January.
Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation President Randy Hatzenbuhler, who is leading fundraising for the library, last spring told a meeting of the Bismarck Rotary Club of $73 million committed to the library, saying at the time that "we're well on our way."
Gov. Doug Burgum, who championed the project in the 2019 Legislature, said this month that the library is "absolutely one that I would donate money to." The wealthy former software executive had not yet made a donation.
Project officials also plan to stay engaged with Medora and Billings County residents as the library builds steam. O'Keefe and several Medora residents say communications about the project have been a good faith effort, but some residents do have concerns about the future, such as the library overshadowing the Old West tourist town, and fidelity to promises made by organizers.
"The people that are making the promises and talking to us today probably won't be there five years from now to enforce the intention that has been displayed," said Wally Owen, who lives south of Medora and once ran a horseback riding outfit in nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
'A certain ambience'
Three architectural firms last month presented their design concepts in public meetings in Medora, and shared their visions around town for the public to see and ask questions.
Denmark-based Henning Larsen, Norway- and New York-based Snøhetta and Chicago-based Studio Gang submitted modern designs that lean away from Medora's Old West architecture but also incorporate the Badlands landscape and panorama views.
The board will select an architect on Sept. 18. O'Keefe emphasized the chosen design concept will change. How closely a final design might fit in with the Western ambience of Medora remains to be seen. O'Keefe said the architect "will be in Medora and North Dakota pretty constantly over the next few years to engage with the public and talk through their designs."
Other local projects have strived to "keep a certain ambience in the community," said former Gov. Ed Schafer, chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, which runs the Medora Musical, the Bully Pulpit Golf Course and other attractions. He cited how construction of the Rough Riders Hotel "paid attention" to certain building materials, such as wood.
Schafer said he was "pleased" with the library design concepts and expects the facility won't be "garish or standoutish" but is "going to be an attraction in a community of which there are many."
"I thought that the (finalist) architects really spent a lot of time in the community to try to figure out what people are interested in and what fits in people's minds who live in Medora, so my suspicion is as a singular architect is chosen and a design starts to be revised, I think they're going to make it fit," he said.
Owen said he was "entranced" by the design concepts. He would like to see the library ultimately incorporate more elements of North Dakota's past, such as its Native American heritage, military history and dinosaur fossils.
Amble Inn & Western Edge Books, Artwork & Music owner Doug Ellison, who sits on the Medora City Council, said the design concepts were interesting to see; that the architects appeared "very mindful" of the area's landscape, terrain and historical integrity.
Burgum, who has called the proposed library a "front door" for North Dakota tourism, said the architects' visions "exceeded my expectations."
"I think that I came away even more optimistic than ever about the incredible impact, the positive impact that this could have on the entire state of North Dakota," he said.
It's unclear yet whether or how the library would include a road, trails or parking. One road leads up to the Burning Hills Amphitheater, and two-track trails that access the property could be upgraded, Dakota Prairie Grasslands Medora District Ranger Misty Hays said.
Snøhetta incorporated "a dramatic electric train ride" from Medora into its design concept.
A potential road would depend on the proposal, Hays said.
'It needs to be a constant dialog'
O'Keefe said communicating about the project with locals won't end.
"We'll never stop communicating and listening to the community at every step of the way, and I mean that beyond when the library is physically built," he said.
The library board recently mailed postcards to all Billings County residents inviting them to review the design concepts and attend the architect presentations.
The board established a Medora Advocacy Council of local experts and officials to engage as "ambassadors" relaying questions and concerns. The board also hired a range ecologist to meet with ranchers about local grazing and their thoughts about the project.
"It needs to be a constant dialog, not just one part of the process," O'Keefe said.
Owen knows the concern for promises and intentions being honored in the years to come. There's also a concern whether the library might outshine Medora instead of integrating with the town, its businesses and the myriad outdoor recreation activities nearby, such as camping, hiking and horseback riding. The library board has made good efforts to communicate and address concerns, he said.
"They're addressing these things, but then again, how do we know who's going to enforce the intent they have today, tomorrow?" Owen said.
Ellison said the library board has done well in community outreach and he senses the architectural finalists want the library to be part of the "entire experience" of visiting Medora.
"They want to make the library a piece of the puzzle, not the entire puzzle," he said.
The National Park Service, which oversees Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the library board last year signed an agreement for shared goals.
"Linking the park and the library project would form a natural partnership," Park Superintendent Wendy Ross said. "We look forward to seeing the outcome of the competition and to creating a shared vision for an expanded visitor experience."
'An anticipated challenge'
The library board has been working with the U.S. Forest Service for several months "as far as identifying their interests, looking at alternatives and possibilities," Hays said.
The board has not yet submitted a formal application for a special use authorization for the preferred site.
Hays said the process includes a formal screening to ensure the project meets certain requirements and is feasible, and that the requesting entity is financially capable of completing it. An environmental study follows. The public will have several opportunities for input throughout the process, which could take nine months to a year.
The Forest Service hasn't yet decided which authority would permit the project, but due to its scale, the grasslands supervisor in Bismarck likely would be the one, according to Hays. Similar projects on such land have occurred in other states for ski resorts and gas compressor stations, she said.
O'Keefe said the library's foundation likely would own the land, but options are available for a 30- or 50-year lease. Direct ownership is preferable, he said.
The library's organizers are still meeting with the Forest Service "to fully understand the acquisition process," such as the role of the National Environmental Policy Act, according to Ken Vein, library director of design and construction. Timing of a formal application isn't clear.
O'Keefe said the library board is prepared with a "Plan B, C, D, E, F and G" should the preferred site fall through. The board initially considered 11 sites for the project, and "would go back to our matrix and pursue the next best site," he said.
"This is what I would call an anticipated challenge -- we purposefully built time in the schedule to work through acquisition," he said.
Construction could begin in late 2021 or early 2022, he said. The library is planned to open in 2025.
Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or email@example.com.
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