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TR library won’t be in Dickinson

The original site for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Dickinson is pictured in 2017. As of May 14, 2017 the project is moving away from Dickinson and will instead be set near Medora. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press) 1 / 5
Vicky Steiner2 / 5
Gov. Doug Burgum3 / 5
Rich Wardner4 / 5
Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation Board Chairman Bruce Pitts is pictured in this Press file photo from August 2016.5 / 5

There will be no Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Dickinson after a decision by the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation Board to build the library near the Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora.

Monday morning's meeting opened with words from Gov. Doug Burgum, who is not a member of the board.

"I think we have an opportunity to have a vision that would really honor Theodore Roosevelt, but is also, as I've described it, it's really become the Mount Rushmore for North Dakota," Burgum said. "That interest ... is tied to two things: one is the great work we're doing with the digitization (of Roosevelt's writings) but it's also tied to the physical presence of the Badlands as encompassed in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We have two elements that are synergistic."

It had been previously decided in March that the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Project would be divided into two locations, a Medora-based museum facility and a Dickinson-based. The North Dakota Legislature had $12.5 million to the project on the condition that construction be started before the end of this year—the city of Dickinson had pledged $3 million to bolster this pledge.

Now, following the board's decision, Mayor Scott Decker of Dickinson said the decision was not entirely unexpected, and:

"Dickinson's money stays in Dickinson."

Burgum expressed that the digital library project at Dickinson State University, which was the original start of this entire project, remains a priority and he hopes to see money put forward to accelerate it.

"From the standpoint of this office, (we) firmly support continuing the digitization at Dickinson State and seeking funds to accelerate it. We support rolling the existing legislation appropriation forward to the project," Burgum said. "We also support a single location approach, at least in my view from talking from national donors, that single location needs to be anchored at or near the Theodore Roosevelt National Park."

Representative Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson, said she felt there was a lack of commitment to the university in the governor's words.

"What's your plan if we ramp up digitization, do you think all those people will work in the basement of Stoxen Library?" Steiner asked, later saying: "I still don't feel like we have made a commitment to DSU, and my participation in the ad hoc (committee) was to support not building in Dickinson if we gave meaningful financial assistance to the digitization project."

Burgum said he agrees there needs to be more space for the project, but he doesn't have a specific plan right now.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, did not share the governor's confidence that the legislative funding that had been once pledged to the project would be able to be rolled back or reallocated to the non-Dickinson location.

"He's talking about reappropriating the $9.8 million ... there's definitely no guarantees on that and there are some facts this board needs to understand," Wardner said. "For one, we're on a tight budget. Yeah we got the (Legacy Fund) money, but most legislators feel we need to get through this biennium and not dig into the principle on the Legacy. Fact is, we're going to have a tight budget. When it comes to the appropriation, state employees didn't get a raise last time and we're going to have to deal with that. If you say 'sorry state employees, we're going to send that money to a library' when it's the same amount you need for raising salaries, they are going to be upset by it and morale is going to go down the drain for us."

Wardner made it clear that Burgum's veto decisions and his relationship with the House of Representatives would also be a issue.

"We need to make sure we take a real good look at our priorities as we go into this tight budget. When it comes to the House, the House is the one who is really upset at the governor's vetoes ... because all 14 vetoes were House-originated ideas," Wardner said. "We were glad the governor vetoed them over in the Senate ... point is, I don't know what kind of mood they're going to be in."

Finally, he expressed his own frustration at the back-and-forth that's been done on this decision.

"I'll be honest with you, I'm a little bit irritated by the whole process, because we've been changing our minds. Seven months ago, it was all going to be in Dickinson," Wardner said. "All of a sudden we've stopped ... then it was going to be in Dickinson and Medora ... and now today's vote will be to put it all in Medora. That's a hijacking, in my book."

That "hijacking" was approved 9-2, with Steiner and Wardner being the only votes against the motion. The board discussed the lack of consensus that had resulted from their formation of an ad hoc consensus-seeking committee in April.

"I don't think there's a lot we can claim consensus on," Eric Washburn, a member of the board, said. "The goal ultimately became, what can we get the majority of the board to support in terms of the various elements of the library project moving forward?"

Dr. Thomas Arnold, another board member, expressed concern about a lack of educational programming details.

"Looking through the proposed motion, I don't see a lot of substance to the public programs, the educational programs ... I was just wondering if this ad hoc committee looked at the different facets of a complete presidential library and the location in Dickinson and Medora and how those different programs ... could be best served," Arnold said. "I think that's important to at least have a skeleton in place."

"We did not address that, obviously that's a very important component that we, the board of trustees, have to figure out moving forward," Washburn said. "The buildings are there to house the programs, the programs are fundamental to this."

The first step, he added, was to decide which buildings would house what. He said that they had explored renovating a train depot on the DSU campus and what would become of the Elkhorn Ranch reproduction—and that those issues will be "delved into in great depth" as they move forward.

Bruce Pitts, chairman of the board, asked that the motion be amended to replace references of Medora with Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Washburn made the motion, it was seconded by Jay Clemens, another board member.

"This has been a difficult time for us," Pitts said after the vote. "We obviously had a direction forward, I think that as a board, as individuals as a group, we have paid a price for it. It has strained our relationships, it has strained our reputation as a board. But I think we had to go through it ... I think the path we are taking is much more concordant with the truth of our situation then where we were before. Bottom line is, we are being good stewards of state money and of city money. I am confident this presidential library will be built and I am confident one of the biggest benefactors of this will be the city of Dickinson, DSU and the TR Center. We have work to do. The ball is now in our court. The destiny is ours."

Thomas Mitzel, president of DSU, was not in attendance at Monday's meeting, but provided this comment: "Our goal at Dickinson State University is to continue the work underway at the Theodore Roosevelt Center. Since its inception in 2009, the TR Center has been preserving and promoting the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt by offering educational programing, serving as reference to scholars, and digitizing more than 50,000 items. We will continue to support the work of the TR Center and keep it going strong."