Planning for Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library ramps up as construction start nears

Local and state officials and others met to coordinate planning to meet infrastructure and other needs that will come from increased visitorship to Medora when the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library opens in 2026.

MEDORA — Stakeholders are gathering to coordinate planning and preparations for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library as the start of construction of the $100 million project rapidly approaches.

“Construction will begin when the ground thaws in the spring of 2023,” Ed O’Keefe, president and chief executive officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, said Friday, Sept. 23.

Members of the foundation board met with local, tribal and state officials, including Gov. Doug Burgum, to coordinate how to meet infrastructure and other needs to accommodate the huge influx of visitors expected once the library opens July 4, 2026, as part of the national America 250 celebration.

Over a series of meetings, including one attended by the governor Thursday evening, stakeholders discussed how to expand infrastructure — everything from transportation to water, sewer, drainage and public safety — to properly handle the expected throngs of visitors when the library opens.

“These are not the bells and whistles of a project, but they are the undergirding of a project,” O’Keefe said.

Burgum and cabinet members from transportation, parks, historical preservation, tourism and game and fish agencies were on hand. “He was there to lend his support and listen,”O’Keefe said of Burgum, who has been a champion of the project.

The working session was “a big step toward better understanding the opportunities and needs identified by the county, city, national park, medora foundation and Presidential library teams,” Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said in a statement.

“The governor looks forward to continuing to work with the local officials to ensure Medora and Billings County have the support they need for the citizens and visitors for decades to come,” Nowatski said.

In the ongoing planning for the library, a centerpiece has been ensuring Medora’s Old West charms aren’t impaired by the project and visitors it will attract.

“Everyone wants to preserve what makes Medora special,” O’Keefe said. “That takes a concerted effort.”

Visitation at Theodore Roosevelt National Park reached all-time highs in 1976, 1977 and 1978, during and following the nation’s bicentennial celebration. The park typically has more than 800,000 visitors per year, and the Medora Musical draws more than 125,000 — numbers that will spike once the library opens, O’Keefe said.

The director of America 250, the national celebration of the United States’ 250th birthday, also was present Thursday.

“Medora, North Dakota, is going to be a big part of the national patriotic celebration,” O’Keefe said. “That’s national marketing” that will help draw visitors, a boon to the entire state, he said.

Maureen McGee-Ballinger of Theodore Roosevelt National Park was also at the meeting and presented the park’s long-range planning vision, including possible new visitor centers at sites such as the Painted Canyon along Interstate 94 near the exit to Medora.

Another big need that came up in discussions: housing, scarce in Medora, which has a population of 142.

Already, the park and Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation have difficulty finding housing for employees, and a growing number of tourists also will need accommodations. Fortunately, Dickinson, 30 miles east of Medora, has housing, hotels and other services, O’Keefe said.

“Dickinson is going to be an enormous beneficiary of the project,” he said, noting the library’s association with the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University.

Once the library opens, Medora will become more of a year-round destination. In fact, O’Keefe said he’s already noticing more visitors in September, an extension of the normal summer peak season.

On Wednesday, the library foundation had a meeting with 260 community members — a big turnout in a county with a population of 977, he said.

Library representatives also met with tribal leaders about how they can work together. “Tribal tourism is a big part of the impact of the TR library,” O’Keefe said.

Noting many tour companies plan their itineraries years in advance, O’Keefe said it’s crucial to make plans and contacts early.

“If you start the process in 2025 or 2026, it’s too late,” he said.