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Roosevelt presidential library board chair optimistic as organization begins

Bruce Pitts sat down with a fabled downtown Dickinson coffee group on Tuesday morning and walked away with $1,250. The group handed the chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation board cash and checks to go toward planting...

Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation Board Chair Bruce Pitts stands in front of Cottonwood tree logs that'll be used to recreate Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch cabin on Tuesday at the site of the proposed library and museum. (Dustin Monke / The Dickinson Press)
Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation Board Chair Bruce Pitts stands in front of Cottonwood tree logs that'll be used to recreate Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch cabin on Tuesday at the site of the proposed library and museum. (Dustin Monke / The Dickinson Press)

Bruce Pitts sat down with a fabled downtown Dickinson coffee group on Tuesday morning and walked away with $1,250.

The group handed the chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation board cash and checks to go toward planting a cottonwood tree next to the replica of Roosevelt's Elkhorn Cabin.

"They're challenging other coffee groups to do the same," Pitts said with a laugh.

The cabin is slated to begin construction next summer at the site of the proposed $60 million Roosevelt Presidential Library on Dickinson State University's campus.

Pitts spent the past few days in Dickinson meeting with library staff and potential donors as the foundation begins a nationwide push toward making the project a reality.

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"We're in a position where things are happening in an orderly sequence ... and there's great intent," he said. "We're in a much better place than we were a year ago."

New developments

Pitts said the biggest recent development is that Mortenson Construction has been retained to oversee all aspects of the library's construction. He said the Minneapolis-based firm's connection to Dickinson was essential in the foundation choosing them.

Mortenson built the West River Community Center and the West River Ice Center, the Biesiot Activities Center, and is in the process of constructing the Dickinson Middle School.

"It's important to have somebody who understands what it means to build here," Pitts said.

Requests for proposals are going out to architectural firms and other designers soon, he said, and a consulting group has been retained to help the foundation organize all aspects of its planning.

"We're in the process of planning a capital campaign that is national," Pitts said. "This is a local project, but it has a national impact. Most of the money is going to come nationally. We're very confident about our ability to raise the funds needed to build something magnificent in Dickinson."

Pitts hosted Bridget Bush, a senior project manager for consulting group Ascent, throughout the weekend.

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Bush said she toured Theodore Roosevelt National Park and visited the Elkhorn Ranch site to try and gain a better appreciation for the project.

She will be working with Mortenson on the project and is helping the foundation "realize big ambitions," she said, by creating organization from the beginning to the end of the project, setting milestones and helping organize fundraising and public relations.

The Chicago-based consultant said it's "meaningful" to be involved in the project.

"The cool thing about the project is that Theodore Roosevelt is an absolutely amazing subject," Bush said. "He appeals to so many people. We've got that ability to appeal to masses. There's something of interest for everyone."

One of the biggest issues facing the library foundation, however, remains its search for a permanent CEO.

Jim Kelly, who held the interim CEO position since last December, recently told the board he won't continue in the position while on a leave of absence since suffering a stroke in early July while hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Kelly won't be immediately replaced, Pitts said.

"We think that once we get through this initial phase of planning this winter, we'll be in a position to restart our search for a CEO and we'll probably do that this spring," Pitts said.

Cabin construction

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Dozens of cottonwood logs that have been sitting on the project site just off 13th Avenue West all summer and are meant to be used in the construction of the Elkhorn Ranch cabin replica will finally see movement in October, Pitts said.

The first Roosevelt Elkhorn Festival will be held from 1-5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, at the project site. The festival will feature chief cabin builder Richard Bickel demonstrating the debarking of the cottonwoods, cross-cut sawing the board, and notching and preparing the trees for assembly. The event will also feature a chuckwagon dinner, music and kids games from Roosevelt's era.

The purpose is to begin cutting the logs so they can cure throughout the winter before the cabin is built.

"They need at least a year to cure," said Shanna Shervheim, the foundation's recently hired regional public relations manager. "They need to be debarked first or they'll just rot."

Pitts said it's believed the reason the original Elkhorn Ranch cabin-and others like it-are no longer standing is that the wood used in them wasn't allow to dry and cure.

He said the replica will be built using 19th century tools, but will have modern touches. The roof will have six inches more of an overhang than the original cabin to help with displacement of rainwater and snow, and Pitts said the entire structure will be "exceptional" when it comes to Americans with Disabilities Act regulations.

"We're building this in a way that recognizes modern realities," he said.

Pitts said winter planning is crucial to the construction of the library.

The foundation board-which has 13 members, seven of whom are from Dickinson-is planning a series of community forums to gather input on the project's design and what it should elements it should include.

One of those elements is a 70-ton steam shovel used to build the Panama Canal, which the planners envision as part of a virtual reality exhibit that immerses the museum visitor inside the construction of the Panama Canal.

"We're going to start engaging the community at a much deeper level to react to designs, to react to possibilities. Then next spring and summer, we'll be launching a capital campaign," Pitts said. "All those things will hopefully line up with a time to initiate construction-perhaps in a year-and knowing we have the money to pay for it. All this has to come together in a very deliberate way. I'm optimistic it's going to come together well."

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