MEDORA, N.D. — A big change is likely coming for little Medora.

The proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is planned for the Old West-themed tourist town of 100 permanent residents in western North Dakota.

After several years sitting in purgatory, the high-dollar project has picked up steam since last fall. The library board is working to acquire a piece of U.S. Forest Service land that sits on a hill about 1.5 miles from downtown Medora, and three world-renowned architecture firms pitched their design concepts for building on it earlier this month.

Residents of Medora and southwestern North Dakota largely favor the project and think it will have a positive impact on the city and North Dakota at large. The group behind the project and many locals believe the library has the potential as a tourist attraction to make Medora the third point on the "Theodore Roosevelt triangle," along with Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park. Former mayor Doug Ellison said the library would be "a feather in our cap."

However, most locals still have reservations about the proposed site of the project, the library's effects on the town and whether the commitments made by current organizers will always be honored.

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Residents don't necessarily see the issues as deal-breakers and most remain optimistic that the building on the hill will be a boon for the community.

Longtime resident Wally Owen, who approves of the project on the whole, said "there are fixes to my legitimate concerns." Library CEO Ed O'Keefe said his group pledges to engage with Medorans throughout the planning phases and beyond.

Proximity preferences

The preferred site for the library selected by the board in March wasn't the first choice of most Medora residents, who wanted to see the shiny new attraction closer to downtown.

Mayor Todd Corneil and several others who spoke to Forum News Service said they now accept the site on the hill but initially preferred a 10-acre site right next to the entrance to the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Medora, N.D., Mayor Todd Corneil, right, stands with his wife Ella-Jo in their old-time photography business June 28, 2019. Forum News Service file photo
Medora, N.D., Mayor Todd Corneil, right, stands with his wife Ella-Jo in their old-time photography business June 28, 2019. Forum News Service file photo

Ellison, who owns the Western Edge Bookstore downtown, noted that the site near the national park would have provided the library with easier access to water and sewer services, while giving close-by downtown businesses an economic advantage.

Both Corneil and Ellison said they understand there would have been red tape associated with their favored site. O'Keefe said acquiring the land from the National Park Service would have been long and difficult. He added that the site sat in a commonly flooded area and was too small to accommodate the board's vision for the library.

Owen, who once operated the Peaceful Valley Ranch in the national park, said the site chosen by the library board also presents issues for local ranchers who lease the land from the Forest Service to graze their cattle. A representative from the Medora Grazing Association did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

However, Owen's overriding concern with the site on the hill is that a disconnect between the library and the town could develop. Owen said he wants to ensure that the library experience starts and ends near downtown.

All three architectural firms included proposals to bridge the 1.5-mile gap either through a parking lot close to town, hiking trails that run up to the hill or motorized buggies that take visitors to the library from the city. Ellison said he likes the idea of a parking lot near downtown, and Owen floated the idea of running stagecoaches up to the library.

Theodore Roosevelt Library Director of Design and Construction Ken Vein and architect Jeanne Gang look over a model of Studio Gang's design proposal for the library on Aug. 17. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
Theodore Roosevelt Library Director of Design and Construction Ken Vein and architect Jeanne Gang look over a model of Studio Gang's design proposal for the library on Aug. 17. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Owen also expressed some worry about the possibility of building a new road up to the library far outside of downtown. The only public road that currently runs close to the site lets out near the Medora Musical and pitchfork fondue venues. Owen said a new road could bypass the city and take visitors up and down the hill without ever seeing downtown.

O'Keefe said no new road would ever be built without extensive dialogue between the board and local stakeholders, including business owners and county officials.

Road or no road, O'Keefe said linking the experience of the library with downtown is a major emphasis of the project. He added that he sees the library being an "anchor tenant" that draws investment and opportunity to Medora and the surrounding area, rather than a competing draw on visitors' attention.

Preserving Medora's integrity

To Owen and others who call Medora home, safeguarding the well-defined identity of the Medora community is what matters most.

Owen worries that after the library is finished, developers will see an opportunity to put up shops, hotels or even an entire little Old West town in its shadow.

Dickinson resident and frequent Medora visitor Bruce Orton echoed Owen's concern, saying the town doesn't need a "miniature Disneyland" up on the hill with attractions that detract from the town's character.

Corneil said he's not worried about other developments popping up on the hill, and O'Keefe completely dismissed the notion that the project would ever evolve into that kind of commercial endeavor.

"Plain and simple this will never happen .... This is not the intent — this is not the vision," O'Keefe said. "There’s absolutely no concept in which we would be in competition with the community."

Owen said he largely trusts O'Keefe and the board to do right by the town, but he noted that some of the current actors might not be involved with the library further down the line.

"The people making the promises today probably won't even be around five years from now, ten years from now," Owen said. "Who's going to keep the promises?"

O'Keefe said he understands the anxiety that his team won't always be running the show, but he said "successful foundations are built on values" that can be upheld by any leadership group. The Grand Forks native added that Medorans and North Dakotans are the ones who have to live with the library for generations, and the institution's leaders will always have to take cues from the community.

The library board has already held several public meetings to hear from Medorans, and every single Billings County resident was invited by mail to see the architects' design concepts earlier this month, O'Keefe said. The library foundation has also formed a council of local officials and business owners to seek input and gauge the city's feelings about the project.

O'Keefe said the foundation plans to break ground on the project by the end of 2021 and have the library open in 2024 or 2025, though the group must still finish raising $100 million in private donations to unlock a $50 million public endowment. O'Keefe would not disclose how much the foundation has raised.

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.