BISMARCK, N.D. - The foundation working to build a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in western North Dakota on Monday scrapped plans to split the planned complex into two parts, in two cities, angering a top state lawmaker.
The non-profit foundation's board in March voted to build a museum at Theodore Roosevelt National Park and a library about a half hour's drive away in Dickinson, where a university project is digitizing tens of thousands of Roosevelt documents.
The board reversed course Monday, voting 9-2 to build the whole project at the park named for the 26th U.S. president, who hunted and ranched in the North Dakota Badlands in the late 1800s before moving on to the White House.
The two-location idea "made our vision appear somewhat muddled," board chairman Bruce Pitts said. "You never want to do that when you're in a fundraising mode."
Dickinson State University President Thomas Mitzel was unavailable for comment Monday. Spokeswoman Marie Moe said the school was committed to continuing the digitization work, and Pitts said the foundation also is committed to making that work a part of the library.
Senate Republican Majority Leader Rich Wardner, a member of the board, cast one of the two dissenting votes, saying in an interview he was "irritated" that the library project that began with the digitization project had been "hijacked" by proponents of the park location.
"They're talking about (building) in the park someplace," he said. "Who is going to visit that in January, February, March? ... There's no people out there, just prairie dogs."
The park is a rugged area of hills, ridges, buttes and bluffs where millions of years of erosion have exposed colorful sedimentary rock layers. It is North Dakota's top tourist attraction, drawing more than 700,000 visitors annually.
"Theodore Roosevelt National Park exemplifies the landscape that changed Theodore Roosevelt's life," board member Niles Hushka said.
The library is expected to cost up to $150 million. State lawmakers in 2015 pledged $12 million for a library project in Dickinson, with the restriction that construction must begin by the end of 2018.
Gov. Doug Burgum in recent weeks had expressed concern that the constraint could result in rushed construction and could impact fundraising.
"What the governor did for us was to open our minds to a broader vision and a more dynamic possibility," Pitts said.
With the Dickinson location scrapped, the pledged state money will no longer be available. Spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor plans to work with legislative leaders to have it reallocated during the 2019 session, which begins in January.
Wardner said the amount of support for that is uncertain.
"If I was to vote today the answer would be no," he said.
Pitts said the foundation does not yet have a commitment from a substantial donor but that "a variety of people and institutions" are interested in helping, including the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation.
"I'm confident that six months from now we'll be in a much better place than we are now," he said. "I think a lot of people were waiting to see what the final vision would be."
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