Narrow Gauge forum airs pros, cons

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

Two officials from the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Industrial Heritage Trust faced tough questions and some negativity from a roomful of Bridgton stakeholders Monday about the viability of building a museum and rail line on Depot Street. Yet Bridgton is officially competing with two other communities to be chosen for the project.

The question is, who’s courting who?

Monday’s stakeholders forum was called to answer recent questions from selectmen and others about the economic viability of the project and gauge the willingness of the stakeholders to move forward with it, since it involves an important redevelopment site that the town does not yet even own. In attendance were around 35 people, including three selectmen and members of the comprehensive plan committee, the community development committee, the economic development corporation, the historical society, the chamber, community center and Return of the Rails.

The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum wants to partner with either Bridgton, Portland and Gray to expand its current Portland rail operation around Back Bay by creating a satellite museum and rail line of at least three miles long, so railfans can ride in the original Narrow Gauge passenger cars.

Brian Durham of the MNGRR said Bridgton has a unique advantage in the competition in that Depot Street is one of the original sites where the Narrow Gauge operated. “Nothing would please us better as historians to have (the rail line) operating where it originally operated,” said Durham, one of nine board members for the non-profit organization. Operating the line at its original historic location would greatly enhance the group’s ability to secure the needed grant funding to make an expanded operation possible, and keep it going, he said.

But as his fellow board member, Hans Brandes, stated, “We want to be welcome in a community. If opinion is too divided, we’ll look elsewhere.”

Among issues raised were problems associated with a delayed timetable of up to a year in Bridgton, since the site is occupied by the vacant Memorial School owned by the SAD 61 School District. The district first needs to formally agree to transfer the site to the town, and then voters need to then agree to have it turned over to the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation — which, as a secondary issue — will need to agree that a rail museum and tourist line is the best redevelopment option for the site.

MNGRR officials said they hoped to make a decision on a host community at their board meeting in September.

But after the rail museum members acknowledged they have not yet developed a business plan for the expanded satellite operation — regardless of which community is chosen — the ball was thrown back in their court, as Bridgton Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz, acting a mediator, told Brandes and Durham that the consensus around the room was that Bridgton needed to see a business plan before they could consider signing on as willing partners. Berkowitz asked them to provide the plan by January of next year.

“We don’t want to get halfway into this and find out that you are either underfunded, undercapitalized, or that your grants don’t come through,” Selectmen Woody Woodward told Brandes and Durham. He and others also wondered about the potential for ridership in a community the size of Bridgton, which would also be competing, in a sense, with the Conway Scenic Railroad less than an hour away.

Several members of the economic development corporation questioned the men’s estimate of $25,000 a mile to lay rails, even though Brandes and Durham said they own the steel track, thereby greatly reducing construction costs. Corporation member Mark Lopez said his understanding was that it costs $1 million a mile to lay track.

Corporation member Holly Dvorak, a bank executive, said that based on the lack of financial detail and business planning she was hearing from the two men, “If you were applying from me for a loan today, I’d have to deny you.”

Durham said the rail museum owns $1 million worth of historic railroad equipment, “and the best news, it’s paid for.” He added that it is hard to gauge a success rate with grants, but that “by reuniting our collection with the original historic site” the group could get the collection place on the National Historic Register, greatly enhancing their grant prospects. “We have a good collection, but it’s in the wrong location,” he said.

Durham acknowledged that his group does not have the funding currently to make the move to Bridgton, but would have to raise the money. The project would be done in phases over several years, starting out small. He said they borrowed $800,000 to establish in Portland, a loan which has been paid off through revenues from riderships.

The group has annual revenues of between $450,000 and $500,00, 60-70% of which comes from ticket sales. They also just signed a 15-year lease with the state Department of Transportation for their rail right-of-way. They have two full-time employees and two part-time employees, and had 9,000 riders last Christmas season for their popular Polar Express program. In all, they attract 24,000 riders a year.

Return of the Rails President Bill Shelley said all of the property owners he’s talked to along the beginning of the potential needed right-of-way off Depot Street have expressed a willingness to grant easements. “We could start off riding from the school to the Chamber, to get things started,” he said. “I haven’t run into anyone who doesn’t want it on their land.”

He also noted that having a rail museum presence on Depot Street was one of the top priorities to come out of a charette held two years ago to brainstorm redevelopment opportunities. Several people at Monday’s forum disputed Shelley’s statement, but a review of newspaper coverage of the March 12, 2009 charette backed up Shelley’s statement.

All six sub-groups at the charette included “a Bridgton Railroad Museum and excursions” among the top six design elements they would like to see on Depot Street, according to an article by Bridgton News reporter Mike Corrigan.

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