PORTLAND — The Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum has been keeping the locomotive spirit alive for thousands of people a year on the city’s waterfront, offering train rides and a museum along the Eastern Promenade since 1993.
But this could be the nonprofit’s last year at 58 Fore St.
The organization is measuring interest from other communities about hosting either the railroad and restoration operations or the museum, or both.
Narrow Gauge Trustee Jeff Monroe said the group sent letters to 75 communities and received interest from seven, the names of which are protected by a confidentiality agreement.
The letter indicates that increasing waterfront values – and the group’s rent – are making it difficult to invest the money needed to preserve the museum’s more than 400-piece collection, which dates back to the late 1800s.
“We’re were a little concerned that our rents were high and like everyone else we’re experiencing the downturn in the economy,” Monroe said. “We’re not putting as much money into the restoration of the collection as we wanted to.”
“We have a valuable collection – a one-of-a-kind collection,” he added. “We want to be able to exhibit things in a proper fashion.”
The museum is seeking a community interested in developing tourism, generating economic development, with one or more buildings for exhibition, administration and restoration, and a right-of-way for a potential rail line.
Museum Director Allison Zittel said the Narrow Gauge averages about 25,000 riders a year on its 1.5-mile track in Portland. She said another 2,500 people visit the museum.
In its letter to potential host communities, the group cited a 2005 economic impact study by Stone Consulting & Design that found the railroad and museum, which has a $500,000 annual operating budget, generated more than $2.5 million for the local economy.
The museum is exploring all of its options, including housing most of its collection in another community while maintaining a presence in Portland.
“The need for expanded exhibition space, proper restoration facilities and additional operating area has motivated the organization to seek additional solutions,” the letter said.
City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg confirmed that Portland is one of the seven communities interested in the Narrow Gauge, but did not comment on any specific proposals.
Another interested town is Gray. Town Council Chairman Peter Gellerson said at a recent council meeting that the prospect of the railroad moving and using the town’s Inter Urban rail line is an exciting, promising opportunity.
But while Narrow Gauge officials say the museum’s rising rent is a primary motivation for seeking alternate locations, their landlord said that is not entirely accurate.
Phineas Sprague Jr. owns 58 Fore St., where the group has a month-to-month lease for about 8,000 square feet of museum space and more than 15,000 square feet of yard space for restoration work.
Sprague, a museum founder, said he believes the lack of a light rail line through the city’s Bayside neighborhood, connecting the Old Port to Hadlock Field, has stunted the railroad’s growth.
The original vision, which Sprague said would have cost about $2 million to implement, would have built a rail line to Hadlock, where it could be extended around the Portland peninsula.
While the museum wanted the connection to along the old Union Branch corridor, the city said that use would not be compatible with its overall effort to redevelop Bayside.
Now, the train can only offer rides from Fore Street to the Eastern Prom boat landing.
“If the railroad would have been able to go to the baseball stadium, it would have been valuable to the whole city,” Sprague said. “The little railroad really has no where to go, so it’s appropriate they look for a new location.”
While the Union Branch corridor was ruled out by the city, Clegg said “the Bayside light rail alignment has been and continues to be accounted for in city plans and development within the Bayside neighborhood.”
Sprague said he is disappointed things didn’t work out.
“So many people have given so much time and so many resources to try and give this railroad to the city,” he said.
Monroe, who leads the relocation committee, said the organization will solicit formal proposals in October, with the hope of having them returned by Thanksgiving.
Monroe said a move could be completed by next summer.
“We’re looking at this and exploring it (and) trying to maintain the viability of the museum,” he said. “We’ve got 19 years of wonderful history behind us and, you know, we’re concerned about the next 100 years.”
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Narrow Gauge Railroad awaits its next group of passengers along the Portland waterfront on Friday, Aug. 27.
A group of passengers disembark the Narrow Gauge Railroad on Aug. 27 and head into the museum at 58 Fore St., along Portland’s waterfront.
Customers shop Friday, Aug. 27, at the Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum at 58 Fore St., along Portland’s waterfront.