Barelas hub still on track, developer says

By Lloyd Jojola
Tribune Reporter

Tuesday, April 22, 2003
The drive gears have yet to fully mesh on the planned $30 million-plus commercial redevelopment of the old Santa Fe Railway locomotive repair shops in Barelas.

Back in November 2000, the private, nonprofit Urban Council purchased, for $2.5 million, the 27-acre site and its historic but abandoned industrial buildings from the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co.

The Urban Council announced it intended to seek private investment to finance the rehabilitation of the old buildings and construction of some new ones for a multi-use project that would include a hotel, restaurants, pubs, shops, offices, a museum and “one of the largest exposition and trade show centers in the Southwest.”

The overall project, the Urban Council said, would be called the New Mexico Exposition Center.

But at the site, on the west side of the railway’s mainline tracks about a half-mile south of the Coal Avenue overpass, no redevelopment work has been accomplished in the 29 months since purchase.

The big buildings with many busted windows still sit empty behind chain-link fencing.

Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez and City Councilor Eric Griego, whose District 3 includes the site, say they are working to resolve a dispute between the Urban Council and officials of the planned Wheels Museum, which hopes to be allotted space in the existing buildings for its growing collection of transportation-related materials.

Chavez says if the Urban Council and Wheels can’t settle their differences, the city will withdraw its support for the project.

The man in charge of the project for the Urban Council says the problems aren’t serious. And the project remains on track despite a lack of visible progress, insists Franklin Conaway, the Ohio historic redevelopment consultant who serves as project director.

“Absolutely, the funding is coming for this,” he said. “It takes years to put a significant urban redevelopment project together. We’re still in the planning stage.

“By comparison to similar-sized projects across the country, this project is ahead of schedule. We hope we can make an important announcement regarding the project within 90 days.”

Conaway said additional land near the site is being purchased for the project, but he wouldn’t say how much.

He said the projected cost of the project had grown significantly beyond $30 million, but he wouldn’t say how high.

In February 2000, when the Urban Council was still negotiating to buy the property, Conaway had said the ultimate cost could be as much as $70 million.

Government financial assistance to the Urban Council so far has included a $100,000 planning grant from Albuquerque, another in the same amount from Bernalillo County and a $277,500 federal Community Block Grant for planning and a feasibility study.

Conaway stressed, however, that the project will be completed without major public funding.

He said a for-profit, limited-liability company called Albuquerque Station has been created to work in partnership with the Urban Council to attract private investment in the project.

Bill Garcia is president of Albuquerque Station. He was head of public affairs for Intel Corp. in Rio Rancho for seven years. Before that, Garcia was the state secretary for economic development under Gov. Bruce King.

“We’re still in the process of raising money through private offerings,” Garcia said. “We’re trying to help evolve the project.”

A place for Wheels?
The main buildings at the site were built between 1914 and 1925. For decades, the shop whistle helped determine the ebb and flow of life in Barelas. During World War II, more than 1,500 people worked at the locomotive repair shops.

The shops were closed in 1970 because diesel engines had by then almost completely replaced steam locomotives.

When the Urban Council bought the shops in 2000, seven of the nine members of its board of directors were also members of the nonprofit Wheels Museum board.

Leba Freed, president of Wheels, was the first person to come up with the idea of “saving” the shop buildings by having at least one of them become the home of a museum dedicated to presenting the story of all forms of wheeled transportation, from trains to automobiles to roller skates.

Although Wheels originated the idea of redeveloping the shops, it has no ownership stake in the property.

And now nobody from Wheels is on the Urban Council board.

Freed said she didn’t want to talk about reports of conflict with the Urban Council.

“From our side, things are going well,” she said. “The museum is in good shape financially and getting better every day.”

Wheels has temporary office space at the city’s Alvarado Transportation Center at Central Avenue and First Street. And Freed said Wheels has just received a $500,000 state grant for planning and collection acquisitions.

“Our official policy is that we welcome the Wheels Museum within the greater project area and look forward to working with them,” said Conaway, the project director hired by the Urban Council.

But that phrase – “within the greater project area” – doesn’t necessarily mean Wheels will have a place within one of the big old buildings, Conaway said.

The existing shop buildings have a total floor space of about 300,000 square feet. The two biggest buildings alone – the old machine shop and boiler shop – can provide a combined exhibition space of about 210,000 square feet.

Making room in them for the nonprofit Wheels Museum would mean the exclusion of some other, profit-making uses essential for the financial success of the project, Conaway said.

A boon or a rival?
Griego, whose council district includes the site of the planned expo development, said he is working to get the Urban Council and Wheels to agree on how the transportation museum will fit into the project.

If the Urban Council and Wheels can work out their differences, “the potential is enormous,” Griego said.

“But making it happen is the real trick,” he said.

“In that mix, I think we will be looking at all sorts of transportation,” says Clark.

Freed says Wheels hopes to become home to three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser’s racing memorabilia.

“This would be a world-class exhibit and a major drawing card,” says Clark. “This would be the story of auto racing told in one family and in one individual. This could be one of the deepest and best exhibits.”

Clark said there is a wealth of transportation material linked to Albuquerque’s past.

Other items for exhibit in the Wheels Museum include:

Santa Fe’s famed No. 2926 – the steam locomotive that had been on exhibit in Coronado Park for years. Restoration of this historic engine, rusted by the elements, is under way.

A 1942 Seagraves fire engine that is being refurbished by volunteers working out of the Los Ranchos de Albuquerque Fire Department.

An 1890 milk truck that was used in Albuquerque and rescued from a property in Corrales.

There are plans to restore other historic old locomotives and bring them to Wheels, including those currently stored outdoors at Madrid and Las Vegas, N.M.

Clark thinks no fewer than 600,000 people a year will visit Wheels, which will mean more people staying longer in Albuquerque. “This loop – Wheels, Rio Grande Zoo, the BioPark, Albuquerque Museum, the National Hispanic Cultural Center and other cultural activities – hopefully will get people to stay longer. It develops the tourism exposure.

“If we can get 20 percent of the visitors to stay one more night, that’s a big phenomenon. That will be a big economic boost. We intend to be a part of a big push in tourism.”

The museum’s next fund-raiser will be a dinner, dance and antique vehicle show on Aug. 23 at the city’s new Alvarado Transit Center at First and Central. Information about Wheels can be obtained by calling 243-6269.

Benefit dinner

The Friends of the Wheels Museum are holding a gala dinner and fund-raiser from 6-10 p.m. Oct. 12 at the Hyatt Regency Downtown. Proceeds will help pay operating expenses for Wheels Museum development throughout the year. Tickets are $75, with $50 of that being tax-deductible. Dinner will feature filet mignon and mahi mahi. To reserve, call (505) 243-6269.

“It runs,” said Clark.

The museum is also considering taking a train diorama from a man in Clovis who uses model trains to illustrate a talking history of the westward train movement, said Freed.

“He spent three years building it, and he wants to give it to us,” said Clark.

Just about every day, people call or walk in with other memorabilia, including train signals, Harvey House milk bottles, and historic union documents.

The Wheels Museum already has an ancient steam engine and a prototype electric van from Sandia National Laboratories in its collection.

The museum has reached out to historical organizations such as the Route 66 Association and the New Mexico Steam Locomotive and Historical Railroad Society, which are interested in presenting accurate histories and directing tourists to points of interest throughout the state. The Wheels Museum is interested in being a clearinghouse or research center for many of those organizations, said Clark.

The museum development office has its headquarters at 601 First NW in the former Santa Fe Railroad motor freight building.