By Michael Turnbell
Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
A stylish trade show and exposition center combined with a new Amtrak train depot and a transportation museum could be the key to reviving historic railroad buildings on the south edge of Downtown Albuquerque.
“The New Mexico World Center” is Franklin Conaway’s $30 million vision for the dusty old steam locomotive repair yard that once served as the city’s economic and commercial hub.
It is a plan that could provide much-needed revenue to offset the financial drain of running a museum and to restore the mammoth buildings to their early 20th century grandeur.
“It’s unbelievable to me that you’ve got an opportunity of such historic magnitude this close to the center of the city,” said Conaway, an Ohio historic preservationist and consultant for a local group that wants to put the Wheels Museum inside the idled shops.
The collection of steel and glass buildings that rise along the mainline tracks includes a 19,000-square-foot shop with light streaming through its translucent windows, as well as a 145,000-square-foot heavy equipment shop with a 250-ton crane looming overhead that was used to lift locomotives.
Conaway’s ideas for the shops are as grand as the buildings themselves.
Picture gleaming glass facades, landscaped courtyards and a long plaza lined with flags and filled with fountains. Throw in a train station that would empty passengers into the heart of a trade show and exposition center bustling with visitors.
In smaller buildings on the property, Conaway envisions a brew pub, restaurants and retail stores, and perhaps a new hotel could be built on vacant land north of the railroad shops, designed to resemble the fabled Alvarado that was torn down in 1970.
The idea would be to reclaim the shops and reconnect them with Downtown and the Barelas neighborhood to the southwest.
Ed Pulsifer, vice president of sales and marketing for the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau, said more convention floor space would help the city attract events the convention center doesn’t have room to hold.
“This would be ideal. It would put us on the map for things we can’t even think about doing and help us compete with a lot of cities we can’t right now,” he said.
Pulsifer said the International Association of Police Chiefs, which visited the city in 1994 and has expressed an interest in returning, needs more than 300,000 square feet. The Albuquerque Convention Center has about 168,000 square feet of exhibit space.
“The only thing that stands in the way of their coming back is exhibit space,” Pulsifer said.
The museum’s board of directors is pitching the exposition-center concept as a way to generate revenue to restore and maintain the buildings, pay for improvements such as new water and sewer lines and support the museum’s operation.
Conaway evaluated the potential of the buildings and concluded that a transportation museum should not be the primary use of the site.
“The museum as envisioned should become an integral part of a number of attractions and uses, which must practically reinforce one another to form a self-sustaining, comprehensive redevelopment project,” Conaway said in a report recently submitted to the museum’s board of directors.
“I do not see the museum as the site’s anchor use.”
Joe Craig, vice president of the museum’s board, said he didn’t envision Wheels occupying the entire property.
“All of the buildings combined have more than 350,000 square feet of space. There’s no way we can use all of that for a museum,” Craig said.
The popular California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, for example, is about 100,000 square feet.
While the Wheels Museum may be the vehicle used to save the railroad shops from demolition, Craig said museums are not self-supporting.
“We need something that’s going to generate funds pretty quickly. That’s the reason for the expo center. We have a lot of room to work with,” Craig said.
“We want something filling the rest of the space that’s compatible with the museum and helps as an economic driver for the site. The expo center does that very well,” he added.
The museum board hired another firm, the Danter Company of Columbus, Ohio, to do a quick study that will look at whether a trade show and exposition center with a museum is feasible.
The Fort Worth-based Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, which wants to sell the buildings and surrounding 33 acres, has given the museum board until Jan. 15 to finish the study and come up with $3 million for the purchase.
The Wheels group is competing against Dallas developer Stuart A. Jones, who has refused to talk publicly about his plans.
The biggest obstacle to the expo center is its cost.
Craig said the cost of renovating the buildings would be “at least $30 million.”
But he and Conaway said several national caliber developers are interested in investing in the project.
The Wheels board has talked about leasing the buildings to a developer who would restore them and a private operator who would manage them. The city also could be a player, although Mayor Jim Baca has said the city doesn’t have any money to spend on it.
Conaway said the size and openness of the buildings lend themselves to a trade show and exposition center.
The buildings could host events such as international car shows and conventions for construction, mass transit and pharmaceutical industries that need more exhibit floor space than the Albuquerque Convention Center has to offer.
Revenue from the center could be used to offset maintenance and operating costs for the museum.
Conaway said a transportation museum with mobile exhibits would be a popular attraction for people attending trade shows.
The buildings themselves “are also the most significant manifestation of the history of this site. As such, all of them, would be part of the museum, and in this sense, the museum would physically encompass the entire site,” he said in his report to the Wheels group.
A key to making the project work: convincing Amtrak to relocate its depot less than a mile to the south, so passengers could get on and off trains in front of the expo center.
But that may never happen because the city has also courted Amtrak to be part of a transportation hub planned along the tracks at First and Central SW.
A portion of the hub that’s intended for SunTran buses is under construction, but the second part for Greyhound buses, other interstate coaches and Amtrak is being discussed.
Conaway said an exposition center at the site of the railroad shops — and not the proposed intermodal hub — would be “the logical place for Amtrak.”
“The station is already here,” he said, and passenger trains “would add predictable excitement to the (exposition center) project, while providing Amtrak with a convenient and practical and tasteful station with an aura of grandness.”
By Michael Turnbell