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'This is a campus'

Governor Doug Burgum addressed the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation Board Friday morning as he sat in on their deliberations for the future of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. Iain Woessner / The Dickinson Press

With the decision now made to focus efforts on bringing the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library to the Medora area, the board of trustees for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, along with Gov. Doug Burgum, met Friday morning in Medora to discuss the next chapter in the story of the creation of a presidential library and museum for America's 26th president.

"We have had to adjust our plans as we've evolved," Chairman of the TRPLF Board Bruce Pitts said during the event. "We can't really get any broader in terms of vision unless we want to get intergalactic. We're finally at a place where we need stakes in the ground about why we exist and where we're headed, but this is the scale that we're going to be doing it and this is the place."

The morning was full of presentations from various heads of the subcommittees that support the board, with Niles Hushka, chair of the subcommittee on planning and design, giving a presentation on the overall physical scope and nature of the project, which still has no set design. No decision was made on its final location, look or overall form at this meeting.

"I view this not as a building. Everybody wants to pretend it's a nice building and it will be a nice building because that's how it works. But this is a campus," Hushka said. "We don't have a building, we have a campus. A campus means that we aren't going to study a little piece of land someplace and decide that's where the building is going to go because that's not what we need."

A campus, Hushka said, requires assistance from both the state historical society and park authorities, as the primary planning area, where the campus could potentially be placed, encompasses roughly the entrance area of the park.

"The easiest way to describe it is the entrance area of the park. All the way over to where the Maltese Cabin is to the river to the bluffs," Hushka said.

None of the land in the planning area is privately owned, he added.

How long it might take to determine a feasible area and complete environmental surveys that would satisfy state and federal partners is unknown at this time. However, this project has gained major support from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, and that support, Gov. Burgum suggested, may go a long way in speeding up this process.

"We have got such top-down support from the Secretary of Interior ... maybe we can move through federal processes faster than in other circumstances because of the support that we have," Burgum said. "The strength of the support from the Secretary, I feel, is a very strong indication for this group to be a part of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park."

Burgum imagined a concept of the project, the campus, operating not unlike a social media or software platform—he used the iPhone's app store as an example.

"When this group starts talking about this project, there is going to be amazing architecture and amazing design ... but it will also be a platform and that platform will have applications that come on top of it," Burgum said. "If you think of the park as a platform, the library as a platform, we might be building a few of the apps ... then the next 100,000 apps will be built by outside people. ... we have to think about the platform we have and how to build a platform that can extend the next 100 years."

National support is good, but a challenge remains—fitting in to the town of Medora.

"We've got to settle on a place where ... we can build something we can sustain, that can generate enough national action to be sustainable," Pitts said. "We've got to be good neighbors. We've got to be invited in (to Medora) and we haven't been. We have a lot of ground to cover."

Burgum said in an interview following the meeting that impacts to Medora will have to be understood moving forward.

"Medora is a unique city relative to the rest of North Dakota already because, if you lined up the 300+ communities in North Dakota ... this would be the smallest city with the most visitors. So it's already an outlier," Burgum said, adding that the community impact is something to consider as the project moves forward.

A major area of consideration for the Medora location is the issue of waste. Medora is, according to City Auditor Gary Ridenhower, well along in its planning processes for expanding its existing lagoon system to a relatively substantial degree.

"The lagoon project is in our budget and it's intended to be done, hopefully, and operational by this time next year," Ridenhower said. "Basically there will be enough capacity in the new system that they tried to project out (several) years. Medora, in the off months, can run without what we're going to expand to."

Ridenhower said that at this stage he has not yet been approached by the library foundation, but he said he believed the the current lagoon expansion would also accomodate the needs of the Presidential Library—he also said that if the project was localized within the park itself, it wouldn't run into any city ordinances—it'd only need infrastructure connections.

Another component to the Presidential Library remains the city of Dickinson, where the library was previously planned to be built. Lingering concerns were expressed by Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, now the only member of the TRPLF board to represent the Dickinson area since Rep. Vicky Steiner resigned from the board earlier in the week.

"The only thing I want to say is that we want to clean up what's in Dickinson. Number one, somebody has to be in charge of contacting the people who donated to the Elkhorn Cabin to find out what they want to do," Wardner said. "If you want to get things going in the right direction, that's number one—number two, you've got to get the logs out of there."

The logs he refers to are the hand-cut logs intended to be used in the construction of the Elkhorn Cabin, a historically accurate recreation of Roosevelt's own cabin he built in the Badlands. Currently, they sit under tarps near the former Dickinson State University rodeo grounds.

Murray Sagsveen, a member of the board, said that letters are going out to those donors to offer them a chance to get their money back or have it put into a different 501c3 organization. He will also be meeting with the Assistant Attorney General, who is representing DSU, next week to discuss issues remaining with the school, which is seeking reimbursement for the loss of its rodeo grounds.

"There are a number of issues and we want to put all of the issues on the table and try to resolve all of the issues ... all at one time," Sagsveen said.

Dickinson still has an important role to play in the development of the presidential library project and should expect to benefit from it, according to Burgum.

"Roosevelt in his lifetime was one of the most well-known people on Earth. He was an international figure. If you step back and look at it, Dickinson and Medora are both in the same boat. If you put a pin on it, it touches both of them," Burgum said. "I think Dickinson is in an incredibly strong position to benefit as the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. No one has really claimed that mantle yet."