Extension Granted On Rail Yard

By Michael Turnbell Journal Staff Writer Saturday, January 15, 2000

Backers of a proposed transportation museum have been given another month to find $3 million in financing to buy the old Santa Fe Railroad shops near Downtown.

Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, based in Fort Worth, Texas, granted the 30-day extension Wednesday in a letter to an Ohio consultant writing a plan for the so-called Wheels Museum, the backdrop for what is envisioned as a world-class trade show and exposition center.

The museum is competing against Dallas-area developer Stuart Jones to buy the buildings and surrounding 27 acres along the mainline tracks.

In November, the railroad agreed to set today as the deadline for the Wheels group to come up with the money in cash or a bank guarantee of cash after Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., intervened on the museum backers’ behalf.

Railroad officials say they are concerned about the adequacy of the museum’s financing and plans to control use of the property should the railroad accept the museum’s proposal.

“We can tell by your communications that some progress is being made toward drafting a development plan and locating financing for the project,” Jim O’Neil, BNSF vice president for property and industrial development, said in this week’s letter.

“However, it appears that the extension date of Jan. 15 may be causing some difficulties (for the museum) in obtaining their financing commitments.”

A museum official said the project already has obtained its financing, but neither he nor the railroad would elaborate about the apparent contradiction.

The letter says the railroad will make a “final decision on disposition of the property” Feb. 15.

The railroad wants $3 million for the 27.32-acre site including buildings. The museum would have to come up with a cash down payment of $300,000 up front.

Museum supporters envision an exposition center combined with a train station and museum inside the historic railroad buildings.

Joe Craig, vice president of the museum board, said the museum has secured financing, and Chillicothe, Ohio-based consultant and historic preservationist Franklin Conaway is finishing a study for the project.

“It’s looking very good,” he said Friday. “The money is looking good. Everything is very positive.”

O’Neil said in the letter that the railroad is concerned that the museum “has decided not to attempt to purchase this property in their name.”

“As you know, a major reason for extending the deadline on this sale was to enable (the museum) to control the development and future use of the site. Due to the importance of this issue to local government officials, we need to know what part, if any, (the museum) will play in the future development of this property.”

But Craig said the museum will be an active partner.

He said the museum intends to form a limited liability corporation, which would have the museum and exposition center among the partners.

Jones has not returned numerous Journal phone calls to comment on his plans, which are believed to be some sort of “mixed-use development.”

Jones, however, was in Albuquerque this week to meet with city officials and the Barelas Neighborhood Association.

“I didn’t learn very much,” said Lawrence Perea, president of the association. “He was very noncommittal of what he can or cannot do. He asked a lot of questions but gave us no information. He just didn’t tell us anything.”

Before meeting with Jones, Ken Balizer, manager of the city’s development services officer, said Jones wants to talk publicly but has been asked not to by the railroad.

“What he’s telling us is that the railroad asked him and the other parties interested not to talk to the press while they have the selection process abiding,” Balizer said.

Juan José Peña, secretary of the Barelas Neighborhood Association, didn’t get to meet Jones.

But Peña believes that Jones wants to operate a manufactured housing plant in the old shops that would employ 200 to 300 people, along with other commercial uses.

If the housing plant is possible, Peña said, he would lean toward supporting it over the museum/exposition center idea because it would bring jobs to Barelas.

“Barelas is a blue-collar community. We would do well to get those jobs,” he said. “There’s also an opinion that there is enough room there to have both the museum as well as some commercial or industrial development.”