‘Rails’ need proactive push

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton’s chance to host a major tourist attraction, a museum celebrating Maine’s turn-of-the-century era of the Narrow Gauge Railroad, may slip by unless town officials become more proactive, Return of the Rails advocate Bill Shelley told Bridgton Selectmen Tuesday.

Shelley complained that the town of Gray has been actively courting museum officials in the competition to host the museum, while Bridgton has not. Gray, along with Portland and Bridgton, is competing for the chance to host the museum, with its engine round house, turntable and 30 pieces of rolling stock and locomotives currently stored at the Portland location of the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum.

Gray, which, along with Bridgton, once had a narrow gauge line, has offered to have museum officials meet with property owners along the former railroad’s right-of-way and begin negotiations. They have made the offer in advance of any decision by museum officials as to which site will be chosen.

“Gray has been very actively courting the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad. They’ve had their economic development guy sending two to three e-mails a week,” Shelley said. “They took the initiative to say, what else do you need from us? Can we arrange for the property owners to meet with you?” he said. Turning to Bridgton’s Director of Economic and Community Development Alan Manoian, Shelley asked, “Have you had any contact” in the months since museum officials came to town to tour the site.

Manoian, who is in charge of the proposal, said he is “following exactly” the framework for the competition as outlined by museum officials. The proposal, to have the museum sited on 4.2 acres of land on Depot Street, the site of the original Narrow Gauge depot, was submitted in March as required, he said. Museum officials told him a decision would be reached by mid-June, and he didn’t hear a thing until Tuesday, when he received an e-mail from museum official Brian Durham.

That e-mail asked Bridgton to begin the process of “due diligence” by contacting property owners along the right-of-way.

“Does that mean we won?” Manoian said he asked Durham. No, Durham answered, it only meant that they needed more information before making their choice.

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said Bridgton is somewhat hampered in the competitive process in that it doesn’t presently own the project site — the SAD 61 School District does. The Memorial School, once the high school, was built over the depot around 1949, after The Bridgton and Saco River Railroad ceased operations.

Bridgton has been talking about taking over the school property from the town for about three years, but the turnover has been delayed by the need for a Brownfields study of possible contamination from the rail depot. More recently, the turnover has been delayed by SAD 61, which said it might still need the school for a time to house alternative education. However, the district has since decided to house alternative education at the Crooked River School in Casco.

“Gray doesn’t have the hoops to jump through that Bridgton does,” said Selectman Paul Hoyt.

Selectman Bernie King said the SAD 61 Board of Directors, at recent meetings, appeared to be “blaming this board for holding things up” in terms of a transfer of ownership. Without owning the property, Bridgton cannot move forward with the museum project.

Berkowitz said plans are to ask voters to transfer the property to the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation, as it is that entity that has been created specifically to deal with real estate development proposals.

“We’re doing what we need to do, but we need the Economic Development Corporation to step up” and take on an active role in developing the site. The corporation has yet to decide what the best use of the site would be, and views the museum proposal as one of several options.

Selectman Woody Woodward, a local businessman, said he and Selectman Doug Taft “have an interest in having (the museum) happen” but “at the same time, as great as it sounds, we don’t know if it’s a viable option.” Woodward said it has yet to be determined whether the museum has the financial capacity to construct the historically accurate buildings to house the rail equipment.

The plans call for the Depot Street land to be leased to the museum for 10 years, with no cost to the museum for the first five years. The proposal also offers 1,800 linear feet of the original 1883 rail corridor to the museum for use as a functioning rail line for train rides, with a promise to work on the prospect of securing future right-of-way easements to extend the line up to 1.25 miles, as far as Sandy Creek. Woodward said, “We said unless (the museum) can show us it can work, we want to keep our options open.”

Shelley said Bridgton officials need to decide one way or the other whether they really want the Narrow Gauge Railroad to return to Bridgton.

“My personal opinion is, I’ve been the one whipping the pony on this all these years. It seems like it’s been gas thrown on a fire. After the proposal goes in, things settle down, and nothing gets done,” he said. “If Gray is courting (the museum), why shouldn’t we be? From what I’ve heard it doesn’t seem like the town wants to put the effort in to get this up and running.”

Berkowitz said he appreciated Shelley’s enthusiasm for the project, but negotiations about the competition for the museum and dealing with landowners and the school district should, by rights, be held in executive session because they involve real estate transactions.

The board agreed to have Berkowitz and Manoian meet in the near future with SAD 61 Interim Supt. Cathy Beecher about the status of the Memorial School.

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