Railroad museum to roll west with $24.5 million project
Group readies plans to build near Reardan, vacate fairgrounds spaceAugust 15th, 2013
The Inland Empire Railway Historical Society is solidifying plans to begin developing an estimated $24.5 million destination museum near Reardan, about 20 miles west of Spokane, and to pull up stakes here.
It has hired Bouten Construction Co., of Spokane, to construct a $1.7 million first-phase building there that's to be called the Lee Tillotson Conservation and Restoration Center, and has scheduled a groundbreaking ceremony for Sept. 21. MMEC Architecture & Interiors, of Spokane, is the architect for the overall project.
The nonprofit society, created in 1967 to promote and preserve the history of railroading here, expects in late 2014 to vacate space at the Spokane County Fair & Expo Center, at 404 N. Havana, in Spokane Valley, where it has been operating for decades.
"It's exciting," says Dale Swant, the Railway Historical Society's president, of the development plans, noting that the organization has been looking to relocate since 2002, when fairgrounds officials asked it to find a new home.
The project also presents a huge fundraising challenge for the organization, which thus far has amassed only a fraction of the money needed to construct the overall complex and will be seeking grants to help cover some of the cost, Swant says. He estimates the overall project will take 10 years to complete.
The Railway Historical Society has been doing business since the fall of 2011 as the Inland Northwest Rail Museum, a reflection of the roughly 200-member organization's intensifying focus on developing a new facility to call home, and the overall complex near Reardan will operate under that name.
Plans call for it to be built in a number of phases on a 30-acre site the organization owns two miles west of Reardan, near the westernmost intersection of U.S. 2 and state Route 231. It already has done a fair bit of infrastructure work there, including installing a well, sewer, and electricity, and putting in a building pad. It also has installed a massive turntable that will be a central museum feature and will enable cars to be placed and rotated through the museum's main-level galleries, Swant says. In addition, it already has moved several historic rail cars and an electric engine to the property and will be moving more cars there before the end of the year, he says.
The 12,000-square-foot building that's to be constructed first is named after Lee Tillotson, an original and lifetime member of the Railway Historical Society who died in 2010 and left the organization a substantial sum. Swant wouldn't disclose the amount of the gift, but said it will be enough to cover about 90 percent of the costs of the initial phase of construction.
The initial building will be used ultimately for restoring rail cars and will include a second floor overlook where visitors can watch and learn about the restoration process. Initially, though, until later phases can be constructed, it also will accommodate other museum functions.
An adjoining structure that's to be built later as part of the project's first phase will house a streetcar gallery, including what Swant says is the only remaining streetcar of the hundreds that once provided transportation to Spokane residences.
That first-phase complex will connect via a skywalk to the rest of the museum complex, which will feature a partial hub-and-spoke design, with the turntable at the hub. It's expected to include a reception gallery, auditorium, locomotive gallery, separate car gallery, gift shop, and switchyard and signal display. It's also expected to include an outdoor two-foot gauge railroad that children can ride a quarter-mile loop of track, similar to a much shorter, circular one that the organization currently operates at the Fair & Expo during the Spokane County Interstate Fair.
"There will be enough stuff there-interactive displays-so that when the kids come, they'll have fun and can ride the train," Swant says.
Eventually, he says, the organization would like to use some of its full-size railroad equipment to offer an ag train tour that probably would be about 30 miles to start with, but that eventually could travel as far west as Coulee City, Wash.
"The towns along the line already are on board in terms of cooperating in promoting it and stuff," Swant says.
The Railway Historical Society operates on the south side of the fairgrounds, where it has a several-thousand-square-foot shop, the two-foot-gauge, circular-track train ride for children, and a static display of historic rail cars. In all, it still has about 20 rail cars there, Swant says. It's been one of the longtime fixtures at the Interstate Fair, which last year attracted 207,500 people and generated $2.3 million in revenue. This year, the fair is scheduled for Sept. 6-15.
The society derives revenue from fair ticket and souvenir sale proceeds, membership dues, donations, and the Spokane Model Train Show, which it holds at the fairgrounds in the spring and fall in co-sponsorship with the River City Modelers.
The society was content to stay at the fairgrounds, but it was informed back in 2002 that it needed to move out and "didn't have much choice," Swant says. He says, "They gave us 90 days to get out," but since then the society has been granted multiple extensions and has been able to remain there on a year-to-year lease basis while trying to find a new home.
Developing a new museum and moving a collection of this size is a monumental undertaking, as fair officials realized, requiring extensive site development and installing enough track to move and display the equipment at the new location, Swant says.
Locating the museum that far from the Spokane metropolitan population base might seem like an ill-advised decision, but Swant says, "To find that kind of property in Spokane would have been expensive."
Also, the Lincoln County Economic Development Council, of which he is a founding member, and the Reardan Area Chamber of Commerce, of which he is president, were eager to attract the project to their area, he says.
"Ourselves and Rosalia were the only ones that made presentations. You had to find a place where you had a spur of some kind," Swant says.
Although the society bought the envisioned museum site years ago, plans to get the project rolling didn't move into high gear until last year, thanks to Tillotson's generous bequest, with the hiring of MMEC to produce a master plan for the property.
The donated Union Pacific turntable, formerly located on an East Sprague site near other rail lines where a Walmart store was developed recently, was transported to the museum property by rail and installed at its permanent location in January 2012 at a cost of about $40,000, Swant says.
"One of the downsides of being at the fairgrounds is you only have exposure once a year," during fair time, so the new location offers a much better, year-round opportunity to generate revenue, Swant says.
"Now we're getting into grant writing," he says. The society already has received a few grants, including from Lincoln County, he says, adding, "We're getting to the point now where we hopefully will get some larger grants."
It's still unclear at this point what the county will do with the space at the fairgrounds that the Railway Historical Society vacates.
Jessica McLaughlin, fair coordinator, says the fair advisory board has been working on a 50-year master plan for the fairgrounds, and one possibility might be an expansion of the grandstand arena onto some of that property.