The Gray Town Council is considering a public-private partnership to help bring the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Company to town.
The sound of the train in the distance has been tantalizing Gray residents for five years now, since the town was selected from among three other competing municipalities – Bridgton, Monson and Portland – to be the railroad’s new home.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the council discussed laying the tracks for the railroad, physically and metaphorically, with half of a million dollars from the town. The funds, however, would first need to be approved by the voters.
The Narrow Gauge Railroad, a nonprofit educational institution and historic site, has operated on the Portland Waterfront for 24 years. The museum property at 58 Fore St. was purchased by Portland development company CPB2 in 2014.
In 2015, CPB2 and railroad officials agreed to a lease extension of the Portland museum location through 2017. Now, the project “is something that needs to be done and the urgency is really front and center with the board,” Donnell Carroll, executive director of the Narrow Gauge Railroad, said in an interview Tuesday.
Carroll said the company wants to be open and running in 2018 at the proposed site along Route 100 behind the Gray Plaza. The Narrow Gauge Railroad will be allowed to continue operating trains at their track on the Portland waterfront until 2023, but will likely forfeit the ownership of the museum property in a year and a half.
The idea for a public-private partnership was presented at the meeting by Councilor Jason Wilson, who approached Carroll a few months prior asking what the group would do with half of a million dollars, according to the railroad official.
Carroll developed a breakdown for how the money would be spent, which he presented to the council at the meeting.
The project to relocate and expand services provided by the railroad is estimated to cost between $10-12 million. The sum includes the construction of 9,500-13,000 square-foot museum, which will have space for a library, administrative office and functions and a covered platform where visitors will wait for trains.
The cost also includes developing and improving an existing rail line behind the Gray plaza, previously owned by Central Maine Power. The line, part of the Interurban Rail Line that ran from Portland to Lewiston until the 1930s, was donated to the Narrow Gauge Railroad by the power company in April 2014.
In an interview Tuesday, Carroll said the company plans to meet with Maine Land Consultants next week to discuss site work that has been completed at the tracks, including surveying and wetland mapping and conceptual designs for the facility.
Once the environmental impact of the proposed facility is determined, the design and location can be set “and we can sit down and do assessments as to costs for building, permitting and site work,” Carroll said. At that point, he said, the company will have a better understanding of the financial picture.
So far the organization has raised roughly half of a million dollars in donations toward the project, Carroll said, and also has “a lot of irons in the fire.”
“We’ve had initial and follow-up contacts with potential donors, all with relatively positive results,” Carroll said, but “no one wants to be the first person in the lake, so we’re trying to find the first big contribution. But we’re getting good feedback.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, a few members of the council said it’s time for Gray to invest in the narrow gauge railroad and help get the project barrelling down the tracks.
The Narrow Gauge Railroad is an investment for the town that would have a “multiplier effect,” Wilson told council members, meaning the business brought to town by the railroad would benefit other local businesses and attractions, such as Gray’s Maine Wildlife Park.
Councilor Lew Mancini showed enthusiasm for the proposal, and told councilors and citizens “it’s time to make some type of commitment to the organization and show people outside the town that the town is not afraid to invest in itself.”
Town Attorney Bill Dale confirmed the legality of using the public funds for a private usage, which he said is acceptable in this case because it’s an “economic development opportunity.”
If the town decides to go forward with the proposal, the funds will need to be approved by voters, Dale said. The funding could be written into the annual budget or presented as a general obligation bond, ratified separately at the municipal elections.
Councilor Lynn Gallagher said she supported the Railroad’s move to Gray, but expressed a few concerns about the proposal.
For one, Gallagher requested a more detailed breakdown of how the $500,000 would be used and greater justification for the sum. She also asked that a memorandum of understanding to be drafted between the organization and the council.
Council Chairman Matt Sturgis said he was “cautiously optimistic,” but would not fully support the proposal right away.
“I think it’s a good idea to see it go forward,” Sturgis said, “and put it to the voters as we have an obligation to.”
An indication that headway is being made on the project is the presence of two railcars outside the Gray Plaza. Carroll said the trains were moved from Bridgton, where they had been displayed outside the Chamber of Commerce until Bridgton officials asked for them to be relocated.
Instead of moving them to Portland then back to Gray, the Narrow Gauge Railroad asked the property owner, Dan Craffey, if they could be put on display, Carroll said.
It’s the Railroad Company’s equivalent of a sign saying “coming to a community near you,” Carroll said.
The Standard Oil car is one of two train cars off of Route 100 in Gray, where the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad hopes to operate the historic two-foot railcars by 2018. The cars are a sign the full operation is “coming soon to a community near you,” said Donnell Carroll, executive director of the railroad company.
The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad, now located on Portland’s Waterfront, is looking to move operations behind the Gray Plaza on Route 100. Two of the historic train cars were moved from Bridgton to the proposed development site, above.