Wheels Museum Rolls Forward

By Jim Belshaw
Albuquerque Journal

Sunday, July 8, 2001
Let’s see, in the matter of the renovated Sports Stadium, which may or may not wind up in court and which continues to cause Maalox moments for the mayor, the City Council, the mayoral candidates on the City Council, the non-mayoral candidates on the City Council and various and sundry others. … Look, you go on ahead without me. I’ll catch up later. I have some tidying up to do here. “You mentioned us in a column,” Leba Freed said. “People have been calling me. They want to know if something’s wrong with the Wheels Museum.”
Yes, I mentioned it. No, there is nothing wrong with it.
The Wheels Museum came up in a conversation with a friend two years ago when it looked as if we might find a way to scuttle the grand project, just as we seem to be trying to do now with the ballpark. I re-visited the conversation in a column last week. Someone saw the reference, worried about it and called Leba Freed, president of the Wheels Museum board of directors, vice president of the Urban Council and dreamer of large dreams.
The Wheels Museum is to be built in the old Santa Fe Railway Repair Shop along Second Street, just south of the Amtrak station. It is a big idea; it is, in fact, a major league idea requiring a major league attitude – it is 350,000 square feet of steel-and-glass archaeological treasure. The first time she told me about it, Leba Freed used the word “cathedral” to describe the shops. I thought “cathedral” might have been a stretch. Then I walked in and saw them for myself. It was exactly the right word.
She first proposed the museum idea three years ago. She’s been at it ever since.
“I have a list,” she said last week.
On it is an urban planner of international renown who is working on the master plan, a museum planner of similar international standing, an Academy Award-winning producer working on large-screen computer technology, an architectural photographer donating his services and a photography magazine publisher. “The Pennsylvania Railroad Museum is sending Santa Fe Railroad memorabilia,” she said, “and we’ve worked quite a bit with the New Mexico Film Commission; MTV wants to film on the site; the Route 66 Association is interested in working with us; we have a membership drive under way; we’re having a fund-raiser at the Hyatt on Oct. 6; and we’ve moved into the Masthead Building at 601 First SW, right across the street from the site.”
Last year the Urban Council closed a $2.5 million deal with the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad that secured the site for development.
“We have been told by urban planners that it has the potential of becoming the biggest and most important re-use project in America,” she said.
The museum will require about $30 million in private funding. She is confident the money will be found. “We’re looking at this as a national project, and when you look at it in a bigger way with bigger people who have done bigger things, then the attitude you need becomes … well, de rigeur,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’ve never done anything like this before, so we can’t do anything now.’ It’s a struggle. We have to work hard at it every day. But we’ll get it done.”
In that column last week, I mentioned an Albuquerque woman who loved her hometown but doesn’t work here. She said the good ideas always had a way of not working here. “Something always comes up,” she said.
The Wheels Museum is a good idea. It began three years ago. It’s still working. So far, nothing has “come up” to nitpick it into oblivion.
“In the last two days I’ve talked to two men involved in the project and they said what I’ve said all along: We have a mission,” she said. “We love Albuquerque; we see this as the thing that will change the city in terms of history, economics and education; and we all can’t help but jump on board because it’s so right in so many ways and so good for so many people. That’s why we have this passion.”