BISMARCK — The group behind the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum announced its preferred site for the library Tuesday, March 31.

If all goes according to board of trustees' plan, the library will stand along the Maah Daah Hey Trail about 1.5 miles from downtown Medora. The 50-acre site lies a few hundred yards from the amphitheater used for the well-known Medora Musical and includes the top of a flat butte and an adjacent rocky slope.

Library CEO Ed O'Keefe said the site emerged from 10 other nearby tracts because it scored highest on the board's assessment of a variety of considerations, including location, cost, timeline and ease of land acquisition.

O'Keefe said the site is "exceptionally beautiful" and would give visitors a strong impression of the Badlands. It's also not far from the area's main attraction, the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

However, securing the site is not necessarily a sure thing, O'Keefe said. The property is currently owned by the U.S. Forest Service, which leases much of it to nearby ranchers who use it to graze cattle and horses. In a 47-page document outlining the site selection process, design director Ken Vein and project consultants also noted that getting approval from Billings County officials on matters of planning and zoning was the biggest risk of selecting the site.

O'Keefe said the board has already been in contact with all the stakeholders about the current plan. If the preferred site doesn't work out for whatever reason, O'Keefe said the board has already reviewed the 10 other sites and could select a different one. He believes the involved parties will see value in the project, especially because it could bring investment and jobs to the area in a time of economic need.

The board of trustees for the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library considered 11 sites near Medora for the library, but chose one along the Maah Daah Hey Trail (far left). Photo via library document
The board of trustees for the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library considered 11 sites near Medora for the library, but chose one along the Maah Daah Hey Trail (far left). Photo via library document

During a public forum at Medora City Hall earlier this month, residents expressed preference for a site right next to the national park's entrance. O'Keefe said the board dug into that potential site and determined it was too small at only 10 acres and that it lay within a flood plain, requiring a more difficult land acquisition process through the National Park Service. The site near the trail does not have these concerns and includes room for future expansion, he said.

The board will send out requests for qualifications next week to about a dozen architectural firms around the world, which marks the formal beginning of the process to select a designer for the project.

The next steps, according the board's project brief:

  • Design concepts from three to five architectural firms will be due to the board and made public. Residents will have an opportunity to weigh in on the proposals at the board's Aug. 17 and 18 meetings in Medora barring cancellations or postponements. O'Keefe said this part of the process was originally supposed to occur by June 30, but the far-reaching effects of the coronavirus outbreak on private businesses, like architectural firms, might necessitate a delayed due date.

  • Architectural renderings of the contending firms' design proposals will be due to the board and made public. The original due date was supposed to come on Sept. 1, but is now subject to potential delays.
  • The board will select a firm to design the project and try to close the land acquisition deal by Sept. 15, though this step is also subject to potential delays.

O'Keefe noted that the board would be sensitive to the limitations of firms during the public health and economic crisis caused by the virus. The Grand Forks native had previously said he hoped the library would open by 2024, but he noted that the outbreak realistically put the project back at least six months, and opening day would more likely come in 2025.

Before shovels hit dirt, the foundation must still come up with the money necessary to complete the project.

Last year, state lawmakers approved a $50 million endowment for the project if the library foundation can raise $100 million in private donations. O'Keefe told Forum News Service fundraising efforts are going "phenomenally well" and confidently said he expected the board would reach the lofty goal before the beginning of the next state legislative session in January 2021. However, he would not disclose the foundation's progress.

As the name suggests, the proposed library is meant to honor and recount the complex story of Theodore Roosevelt, the one-time governor of New York who became the 26th president of the United States. As a young man, Roosevelt spent parts of three years hunting and ranching in the North Dakota Badlands before his career in national politics.