Teddy Roosevelt Library Is a Good Idea, but Please Don’t Call It Mt. Rushmore

A sign indicating what was the construction site for a proposed library commemorating Theodore Roosevelt in Dickinson. The site has since been changed to Medora.

“North Dakota’s Mount Rushmore,” is a term Governor Doug Burgum has been throwing around, touting the $50 million in interest earnings from North Dakota’s nearly $6 billion Legacy Fund to the build out of a $150 million Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Medora.

I cringed when I read that Burgum was calling the project that. Not because I oppose the project – I’m very much for it – but because the proposal has some serious political headwinds and that sort of oversell of the project isn’t going to help.

This library/museum, as important as it would be both for academics and for general public interest, is not going to be anything approaching the draw Mt. Rushmore is for South Dakota, and critics of the project can use that sort of exaggeration to undermine it.

Case in point, Dickinson-area political leaders are opposing the funding because this library was originally supposed to be built in Dickinson, on the campus of Dickinson State University. Earlier this year that changed.

Now one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state, Senate Majority Rich Wardner who just happens to be from Dickinson, is opposed to the project:

In Dickinson, however, the mood does not welcome the governor’s suggestion.

“It’s a recommendation on his part. The Legislature has to pass this and … it doesn’t sound like it’s gonna be received with open arms at all,” Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said. “I think it’s going to be a long shot if it happens. Right now, I wouldn’t bet on it.”

Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson, expressed skepticism that the promised big donors for this project have yet to step forward.

“The governor has said there are donors who are interested in having it built in Medora and I have yet to see any donors step forward,” Steiner said. “I would feel stronger about the Medora location if donors stepped forward.”

You could write some of this off as rank parochialism. Local politicians putting what’s best for their little fiefdoms over what’s best for the state. Except, that local rancor is buttressed by some statewide ire too.

This letter to the Fargo Forum is characteristic of the sort of dissent I’m hearing. “My wife and I are opposed to the state of North Dakota spending any taxpayer dollars on the proposed Roosevelt Presidential Library. Similar projects are usually financed with private, not public, donations,” Fred LaVenuta writes. “The increased tourism that might accrue from the library will directly benefit a few, not many, North Dakotans.”

I’m also hearing a lot of people suggesting the state ought not be spending on this library when we have other needs like flood control, etc., etc. to spend on.

Couple this dissent in with the eye-rolling Burgum’s Rushmore comparison has likely inspired, and it could add up to this project getting jettisoned pretty quickly. Which would be too bad, because the library is a worthy project, and Burgum was right to prioritize it in his budget.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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