By Michael Turnbell
Thursday, February 24, 2000
From the moment Leba Freed looked inside the empty locomotive repair shops at the edge of Downtown, she knew her idea of a transportation museum had found the perfect home.
That was nearly two years ago.
Along the way, that idea blossomed to include a trade show and exposition center with offices, restaurants, shops, pubs, even a hotel fashioned after the historic Alvarado razed in 1970 — still built around the vision of a “living museum” of transportation history.
On Wednesday, the Urban Council took a critical step toward making it all happen. The private, nonprofit corporation, which is dedicated to revitalizing older areas of the city, signed an agreement to buy the old Santa Fe railroad shops between Second Street and the mainline tracks for $2.5 million.
The council is making a down payment of $100,000 to the Fort Worth-based Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway. It has three months to come up with the rest of the money.
“It’s overwhelming that we have an opportunity to do economic development for the state of New Mexico as well as save these historic buildings,” said Freed, president of the Wheels Museum board of directors and vice president of the Urban Council.
Urban Council president Joe Craig called the project an immense undertaking but said it is feasible.
Craig pointed to the Sandia Peak Tram, which might have seemed like a pipe dream before it was built but now is one of the city and state’s biggest tourist attractions. “If you don’t start somewhere, you don’t get anywhere,” he said.
The Urban Council, which is working with the Wheels Museum group, is taking the lead on the project because it will include a mix of uses.
“The museum will be a significant component but it will not be a dominant use of the square footage,” said Franklin Conaway, an urban development consultant from Ohio. “By breathing new life into these buildings, the entire site will be a museum.”
A marketing study showing the potential for the exposition center/museum should be finished in three weeks.
The Urban Council will do an environmental study and have the property reappraised. Conaway said it will take about a year to complete plans, come up with long-term financing and decide how to manage the project.
A preliminary study showed the buildings, which include 350,000 square feet of space, would attract conventions and events that bypass Albuquerque now because the convention center isn’t big enough. The project is to cost $70 million. Most of the money is expected to come from private investors.
Conaway said developers will have financial incentives to become involved with the project because they could qualify for a 20 percent federal tax credit to renovate the historic shops.
Last fall, Conaway said a new Amtrak station in the heart of the proposed exposition center could be key to the project’s success. The station would also serve excursion trains besides Amtrak that could take passengers to Santa Fe or special events.
But Amtrak’s participation is in doubt because Greyhound is negotiating with the rail service to sublease space in a new rail and bus transportation center planned by the city north of the railroad shops.
Conaway said the Urban Council and Wheels Museum group want to work with the city on projects that would be mutually beneficial, such as transportation linking the exposition center with the existing convention center and other big projects planned Downtown.
Another group, the Historic District Improvement Co., is working with the city to revitalize a 12-block area around the rail and bus hub with a 14-screen theater as an anchor.