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PORTLAND — More than a year after officials announced they were looking for a new home for the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum, the organization is ready to begin raising money for the move.
The museum is looking to hire a fundraising consultant this month, Brian Durham, vice president of the organization’s board and chairman of its relocation committee, said.
“We are going to move,” Durham said. “We’re not sure when.” If funds allow, the move could begin as early as next year, he said.
The museum’s board has selected Gray over Portland, Bridgton, and Monson as its most likely new home. Gray officials have been “excited” to work with the museum, which offers rides on and preserves trains that run on 2-foot wide tracks that were virtually exclusive to Maine from the late 1800s to the 1940s, Durham said.
Talks with Central Maine Power Co., which owns the now-vacant right of way where the museum would likely lay new tracks, and Gray Plaza owner Dan Craffey, who could give the group working space, have also been encouraging, Durham said.
Nothing has been finalized, but no better option has appeared than the move that could cost as much as $5 million, he said. Meetings are scheduled in Gray this week to further discuss the project, the town’s economic development director Beth Humphrey said.
The railroad, operated primarily by volunteers, is now based at the Portland Co. complex at 58 Fore St. It has a month-to-month lease, and owner Phineas Sprague, who was instrumental in the museum’s formation, has the land up for sale. Museum officials expect it to be sold and developed when the economy picks up.
“We love our current location,” along the Casco Bay shoreline, Durham said. “You can’t do better than that.”
But rather than wait for a 30-day eviction notice from the landlord, “we’re trying to be proactive,” he said.
There are few available alternatives near their Eastern Promenade rail line, which carries about 23,000 pleasure-seeking riders a year. The city and private property owners in the area are unwilling to carve out space from waterfront real estate for the nonprofit, partly because doing so doesn’t fit cleanly into the city’s master plan for the neighborhood, Portland Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said.
The move to Gray will likely change the face of the museum’s volunteer staff and, to some extent, it’s riders, Durham said.
“I wish it could stay,” said volunteer conductor Arthur Hussey said as he climbed onto a rail car Saturday. Hussey, who has spent 18 years riding the rails, said he would probably spend fewer days volunteering after the move. Even Durham said he would likely scale back his time at the museum, where he now spends several days a week.
On Saturday, Jennifer Thurgood, a second-time visitor and South Portland mother of two children, said she had just bought seasons passes for her family. “We were planning on coming a lot,” Thurgood said.
A Gray location would “not be too far away that we wouldn’t go,” she said. “But not as much.”
Durham tried to make the best of the situation, noting the Gray Wildlife Park gets 100,000 visitors a year. “If we could get half of that, that would be an increase in ridership,” he said.
And though the museum would have to lay new track on the CMP right of way in Gray, which was once travelled by a trolley between Portland and Lewiston, the move could potentially allow the museum to double the length of its tracks to about three miles, Durham said.
Since that the Portland right of way is under lease from the state for another dozen years and was repaired in April, he said, it is even possible that the museum will move its flagship operation to Gray while maintaining a satellite rail line on the Eastern Promenade.
Just how much the organization expands or changes depends, of course, on how much money the museum can raise.
“The underlying problem is money,” Durham said. “It’s always money. It’s just going to be tough and it’s going to take time. And here’s the real bottom line: we’ve got to do it, or go out of business essentially.”
Daniel Maher, left, and Jodee Mosher, of Falmouth, watch Portland’s Eastern Promenade roll by outside a window on the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad on Saturday. Mosher said the location on the peninsula is more accessible than the railway museum’s proposed move to Gray. “I wish it could stay,” volunteer conductor Arthur Hussey, right, added.
The Narrow Gauge Railroad awaits its a group of passengers along the Portland waterfront last August.