'High anxiety': Presidential Library project faces ‘dissonance’ on its board

Following a decision to split the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum into two locations in March, Monday morning saw the museum's board of trustees meet and agree upon setting aside a few weeks to re-discuss that plan.

Funding for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library may be relocated for one-time Dickinson State University if an amendment passes next week. Ellie Potter / Forum News Service
Funding for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library may be relocated for one-time Dickinson State University if an amendment passes next week. (Press Photo)

Following a decision to split the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum into two locations in March, Monday morning saw the museum's board of trustees meet and agree upon setting aside a few weeks to re-discuss that plan.

A motion was passed to establish a subcommittee that would help the board find a "consensus" as they move forward with plans to construct a roughly $150 million Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in two locations, Dickinson and Medora. Planning on the Dickinson location will continue during this time.

This motion came about in response to a report given by Gov. Doug Burgum, who expressed some doubt about the decision to split the project between two locations.

"I believe this board did what it had to do at the last meeting ... given the information you had and given the legislation before you, the constraints," Burgum said. "Because the legislation is clear that it has to be a presidential library in the new building and you have to spend $14 million ... with that unusual set of constraints that would impact design and site selection and fundraising ... it kind of affects everything."

The constraints Burgum refers to specifically revolve around the monies appropriated by the North Dakota State Legislature, which were guaranteed to help finance the project as long as construction was started before the end of 2018. Burgum expressed concern that working under that deadline might result in a "sub-optimal" outcome.


Burgum spoke of potentially significant support from not only the U.S. Department of the Interior but also the National Park Foundation Board, and that a big part of this project's appeal was how it might synergize with other popular tourist destinations in the region. Burgum said Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke seemed interested in improving the appeal of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Burgum said together with Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford he was seeking ways to create "relief" from the constraints of the legislative deadline.

"I think (there is) a potential for us to create some relief from constraints ... I'm not sure if that requires seeking permission from this board," Burgum said. "You should never give up a bird in the hand in exchange for a proverbial two in the bush ... but I think there's a possibility of giving up the bird in the hand for a different bird in the hand, it might be better than the bird you have."

Burgum was asked if there had been some hitherto unknown opposition to the Dickinson location he had heard about.

"There's two opposing views to this thing and there's maybe three or four views. I think there's one view that getting Unit 1 (in Dickinson) done helps propel things forward ... there's another view that pursuing this building at this price tag and this location at this time driven by these artificial constraints is a hard thing to explain to the national potential donors," Burgum responded. "They kind of look with perplexity that you have this big huge idea that you'd all benefit greatly from ... if you said, 'What would it take to achieve the big vision?' and you had to say these are the top five things we have to do, I don't think building that building at that location at that budget would be at the next five things to do."

Burgum said he hoped to, in the future, provide the board some "concrete alternatives" and suggested they take some time to come together and find a common vision.

Burgum's report seemed to exacerbate discord within the board, as discussion proceeded after his departure from the meeting. Despite the board having voted upon a single decision after several days' deliberation in March, it was clear that not everyone sat comfortably with the outcome.

"What I've observed over this past month is what somebody described as dissonance (that) has really taken on a very bizarre division on the board, which I get on a human level," Bruce Pitts, chairman of the board, said toward the end of the meeting. "But on a practical level ... we wanted to come out of the March meeting as one board, and we came out not as one board and we haven't functioned ever since as one board."


Burgum's suggestion prompted Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, to point out that the governor can't guarantee that the Legislature will be able to make a similar offer for funding in the future.

"If we give this ($14 million) up, it's the Legislature that will make the decision if we reinstate any funds for this. There's no guaranteed chance," Wardner said. "The governor can't make that guarantee."

Wardner spoke further about the frustrations he was feeling regarding how the project has developed.

"Up until six months ago this thing was going fine, and now it's been hijacked, and I'm a little miffed about it," Wardner said. "Ya'll wanna know what the governor wants? He does not want a building on Dickinson State. He wants it all in Medora. It irritates me, he comes in, Johnny-come-lately, and he starts wanting to take over the project. Oh it's great, the Governor of North Dakota is buying the project, I like it. But y'know what, I've been involved in this for six years, and it's being really frustrating for me (how it's going)."

After the meeting, in a phone interview Wardner said that he thinks the pushback against the Dickinson location comes from big potential donors.

"One of the things that's been told to me is, the big donors are not wanting to give money to the library if it's built in Dickinson; they are if it's built in Medora," Wardner said. "I think the underlying reason for the four weeks is to talk about 'Can we put this whole thing in Medora?' and find something else for Dickinson State."

Representative Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson, echoed Wardner's frustrations.

"What the governor really wants to do is take an old 1960s building ... put a new face on it and call it the TR library," Steiner said. "I don't know how happy you're going to be about what he's (planning)."


Furthermore, Steiner voiced concern that approving a delay that could jeopardize the project in hopes of acquiring an uncertain windfall of wealth might prove unwise.

"The more we delay it, the more constrained we become, and yes, the governor is causing the constraint because he's asking you to possibly jeopardize the project, and we don't have anything from our friends yet," Steiner said. "If we had a signed letter from our friends giving us $50 million, that would be another story. All we have is the $14 million, and that's what we know. I say we go with what we know."

Pitts spoke to Steiner's concerns.

"My understanding is that the governor is not looking at taking a dime from what's done in Dickinson," Pitts said. "He has a different vision for what's happening in Dickinson, but (he's) not talking about reducing the level of investment."

Steiner was the only "no" vote for the motion to create the subcommittee. Pitts declined further comment on the matter following the meeting.

Opinion was mixed from other board members.

Stephen Beckham, a historian, said that he remains "in the dark" about the board's direction.

"I have high anxiety at this point. I've attended every board meeting since I came on the board two years ago ... and I still remain a bit in the dark, I remain in the dark particularly about the big donors," Beckham said. "I've never met these people. I've never heard any estimate of potential funds. So I've been focused on what is real, which is the legislative appropriation and the support of the City of Dickinson. So I really need a bit of a time-out on this, I'm worrying about it at night. I'm not happy with the situation."

Niles Hushka, retired CEO and president of KLJ Solutions Co., voiced his support for the governor's suggestion.

"What I believe is that (the $14 million DSU building) isn't a presidential library-I don't think I want this to be confused with being a presidential library. For one, $14 million for a presidential library isn't going to go anywhere," Hushka said. "It's not what I want to do ... it doesn't fulfill any of the goals that I had when I signed on as a presidential library board member. So let 'em go. I don't even know if I care to even be involved in the updates anymore. It's going to distract from our mission to construct a presidential library."

Related Topics: RICH WARDNER
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