BISMARCK, N.D. | Six years after the North Dakota Legislature pledged $12 million to help develop a Theodore Roosevelt presidential library that never materialized, lawmakers are being asked for more than four times that amount for a revamped project.
The success of Gov. Doug Burgum's proposal to meld public and private money into a $150 million funding package might well rest on which side is willing to pony up first. The foundation behind the library effort wants the state money to jump-start private fundraising, but some lawmakers would like to see some private donor commitments before dedicating any public money — leading to "chicken or the egg" discussions at the Capitol.
"It does take a leap of faith from both sides," said Rep. Mike Nathe, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Burgum has proposed pledging $50 million in interest money from an oil tax-funded reserve account known as the Legacy Fund for the library that the private foundation is trying to develop in western North Dakota's rugged badlands, an area in which Roosevelt ranched and hunted and which he said prepared him to be the nation's 26th president. His four years on a ranch when he was in his 20s ingrained in him the value of hard work, deepened his love for nature and made him a champion of wildlife conservation.
"He took those ideals with him to the White House," great-great-grandson Theodore Roosevelt V said.
Under Burgum's proposal, state money would have to be matched by $100 million in private fundraising. But so far, both the foundation and members of the Roosevelt family have only hinted at the existence of potential major donors, saying it is up to them to decide whether they want to come forward publicly.
That gives some lawmakers pause.
"If these donors aren't stepping forward, then there are other projects that are waiting" for Legacy Fund money, said Dickinson Rep. Vicky Steiner, who served as treasurer on the library foundation board before quitting last year in part because of a decision to change the library concept.
Presidential libraries are something of a modern phenomenon. The National Archives administers 14, starting with Herbert Hoover. By law, libraries for presidents before him have to be built without federal support. Roosevelt's birthplace and primary adult residence in New York are national historic sites, but an effort about a decade ago to establish a library there failed.
North Dakota lawmakers in 2013 pledged $12 million for a Roosevelt library project based at Dickinson State University in Dickinson — which is digitizing tens of thousands of Roosevelt's papers — with the restriction that construction must begin by the end of 2018. It didn't. The foundation last May scrapped plans to build a library on university land and a museum about a half hour's drive away in Medora, a tourist town on the doorstep of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the state's top tourist attraction.
The foundation instead voted to put the entire project in Medora — a site it said was more palatable to potential major donors — and returned $9.8 million to the state.
The decision angered some lawmakers including Steiner and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, who also is from Dickinson and also has resigned from the foundation board, though for an unrelated reason.
Wardner questions the level of support for Burgum's proposal in the Legislature, in large part due to the lack of progress on the project since the state first pledged money six years ago.
"Some (lawmakers) are still wondering why the $12 million that was appropriated three biennia ago was never utilized," he said. "Nothing ever happened for six years. There's going to be some skeptics there. Some are going to think this isn't going to happen — it's pie-in-the-sky thinking."