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Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library board CEO pledges transparency for project's planning

Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library board CEO pledges transparency for project's planning

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Planning the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in western North Dakota's Badlands won't be done in darkness, according to the new CEO of the board spearheading the $150 million project.

"We’re going to be very transparent, candid and open about this process and what we’re thinking, why we’re thinking it, what we intend to do," CEO Ed O'Keefe told the Tribune on Monday.

The board of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum will meet in November in Arizona, and it's unclear how fundraising for $100 million to build the library has progressed in the last six months. Medora residents have expressed interest in the project and its updates after years of waiting for the library to take shape.

O'Keefe's comments echoed an Oct. 3 roundtable in Medora that included U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Gov. Doug Burgum and U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, both R-N.D.

The group mainly discussed how Interior could help site the library if its location is chosen within Theodore Roosevelt National Park, western North Dakota's haven of scenic Badlands tied to the 26th president's ranching and hunting sojourn in the 1880s. Bernhardt supported "open and candid conversation that is two ways" with Medora-area residents in planning the library.

O'Keefe said the library board and National Park Service have signed a memorandum of understanding signaling their interest and intentions to be partners as the library moves ahead. The library will be either "neighbors or tenants" of the park, he said.

Siting the library is "the most critical task that we have," he said.

"I just want everyone from the town of Medora, to Billings County to the state of North Dakota and of course anybody working for the National Park Service to know that we’re going to do this thoughtfully, with their consultation and advice and support," said O'Keefe, who is a longtime national media executive who grew up in Grand Forks.

"This is not going to be some top-down project where we don’t know what people think of what we’re doing," he said.

Burgum championed the library as "the front door to North Dakota tourism across the state" before the 2019 Legislature. When asked if Burgum supports public engagement in the library's planning and fundraising and board meetings, governor's spokesman Mike Nowatzki deferred to O'Keefe "because the (board) will oversee all those processes."

Plans to come

During his Medora visit, Bernhardt saw two potential sites for the library: near the Medora Musical's Burning Hills Amphitheatre and by the Medora entrance to the park's South Unit.

O'Keefe said the board has a "Top Five" list of potential sites. Siting and more information will be publicly available in a project brief detailing the library's "vision" that's expected to be completed in draft form in mid-December.

The board, chaired by Cathilea Robinett, who is president of a California-based research company, will meet Nov. 14-15 in Arizona. Robinett did not return two phone messages or an email requesting an interview. It's unclear if the meeting will be open.

Geology of the Badlands and the Little Missouri River's floodplain are factors to consider in siting the project, along with routing power and water utilities, O'Keefe said. He described the Badlands as "the fourth wall" to the library, and called the park's entrance "very attractive" for its proximity to Medora, the Old West tourist town of about 100 permanent residents.

Land owned by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation has been considered for the library, he added. Foundation President Randy Hatzenbuhler referred questions to O'Keefe.

Hatzenbuhler participated in the Oct. 3 roundtable with Bernhardt, and said he's "thrilled about the project." 

The foundation runs the popular Medora Musical and in 2004 opened the Bully Pulpit Golf Course south of Medora.

"I think the process that the library needs to go through is very similar to what we do," Hatzenbuhler said. "We took public input. There was a concern that you're going to do this near a national park. We chose a designer that had three times in a row been recognized as the industry's No. 1 environmentally sensitive design architect. I think that's the attitude, the thought that people want to bring to this project, as well."

Mixed land ownership surrounds Medora, including private, state and federal lands.

The Maah Daah Hey Trail runs through the park and Medora area. It's managed by the U.S. Forest Service through a memorandum of understanding with the state of North Dakota and the National Park Service.

Fundraising underway

It's unclear how much money the library project has raised. O'Keefe, who was appointed Oct. 1, said he didn't know but that the board has a goal to raise money throughout 2020.

Theodore Roosevelt descendant Ted Roosevelt, who is co-chair of the fundraising campaign, referred the Tribune to O'Keefe. 

The governor in April told the Tribune of $52 million in "generous indications from people." Hoeven has said fundraising is "more than halfway to its goal."

O'Keefe said a fundraising team will assemble in coming weeks. It's to be led by a North Dakota native he didn't identify.

Once $100 million in donations is raised, a state operations endowment fund of $50 million approved by lawmakers earlier this year would be available.

Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford last week held a meeting, which included state Land Commissioner Jodi Smith, about a distribution policy for the endowment, though Nowatzki said the meeting was "very preliminary discussion."

"It will partly depend on the operations plan for the library, which isn’t known yet, and of course none of it will be put into effect until the governor certifies that $100 million in private donations has been raised," he said.

In the loop

Medora-area resident Pat Weir, who also is Billings County's state's attorney, said he's encouraged after the state leaders' roundtable discussion on the library. He hopes the project planners keep local residents and government boards apprised of planning.

Meetings with library board members in years past didn't always yield answers to questions, he said, leading to rumors and "unsubstantiated information."

"Now with Gov. Burgum's backing and with the legislative support and, I think, with our two U.S. senators completely in agreement in backing this whole library concept, I think real progress is going to be made," Weir said.

He also expects the library would bring an uptick in visitors to the Medora area. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 2018 logged about 750,000 visitors. The Medora Musical garners about 120,000 visitors every summer.

Weir prefers the library be sited at the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit to potentially also improve the national park's visitor center and employee housing.

O'Keefe said the library's construction could potentially last up to 2 ½ years, into 2023 or 2024. But the process needs "flexibility," he said.

"There's a lot of moving pieces, but nobody intends for this to be a 10-year project," he said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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