The Fort Madison City Council may very soon be faced with an up or down vote to continue working toward moving the Amtrak depot back to it’s original location at the historic depot near downtown.
Fort Madison City Councilman Rusty Andrews has voiced concerns on several occasions about the continued usage of city funds on promoting the city’s history. Solid stewardship of city funds is an admirable endeavor, and to Andrews’ credit, he wasn’t on the council when the ball started rolling on moving the Amtrak depot from its current location near the city’s waste water treatment plant, into its former location at the historical depot.
But this literally and figuratively is like trying to stop a train in motion.
City Manager David Varley said Tuesday the city could be looking at $50,000 plus per year to maintain the depot in the new location. He and Mayor Brad Randolph have both said those numbers are probably high because they didn’t want to underestimate and end up with sticker shock come budget time.
The city’s close to having an agreement ready for the council’s approval to enter into a 20-year agreement with Amtrak. Varley said a more realistic number, once all the unknowns become ‘knowns’ would be $30,000 or less. So we’re talking about $600,000 over the time of the agreement.
Attendance numbers of Amtrak riders through Fort Madison have dwindled from 9,000 riders in previous years to a projected 8,500 now and it’s a good question to ask how many of those riders are fresh riders or people that already get off in Fort Madison. Maybe a real number of people who actually come into the town fresh is closer to 3,000 or 4,000. Some people want that studied to know what the impact is.
But even if it’s 3,000, that’s 3,000 you run the risk of losing if we don’t do something with the depot and we’ve already spent $600K on getting the depot ready. Sure, that improvement also helped the North Lee County Historical Society and the museum that’s housed there, but.. they’re already there and that investment will not result in any additional revenues to neighborhood businesses.
But there certainly won’t be any incremental increase in traffic downtown or potential further increased revenues from possibilities that exist with the riverfront because of that $600K if they don’t move the depot.
Councilman Chris Greenwald threw down a gauntlet of sorts saying if the council voted against moving the depot, then he was going to push for a hard look at other ventures the city supports that don’t generate revenues for self-sufficiency – specifically The Old Fort.
“That was built in 1985 with the intention of being self-sufficient and it never has been,” Greenwald said at Tuesday’s meeting. “If we aren’t correct with this, then how are we correct with that.” Greenwald also said at $30,000 per year with 9,000 riders that equates to $3.30 per rider. He said he thinks the city will get that back. Obviously that figure is fluid on both ends, but Greenwald is correct in saying those riders aren’t doing any spending downtown where they’re currently being dropped off.
It seems retrograde politics to us to agree to spend the money to improve the facility and prepare it for the new depot platform, then back off when it comes time to start building it.
Amtrak has struggled with ridership in the past and Congress almost pulled some funding this year due to poor revenues. Because the government subsidizes that ridership, just like the city will have to subsidize the depot. But Amtrak is trying to push communities to refurbish their depots and make them destination stops to help increase riders. If you don’t, they have indicated they may pull your stop. If it works, more people would potentially make a stop at your depot.
At the current location, that may not be that big of deal despite Randolph and Greenwald both saying it “shrinks” the community when you pull infrastructure. If the depot was already downtown in it’s former state and Amtrak said fix it or lose it, we would hope they would have chosen to fix it.
Following that logic, it’s the right move for the city to potentially help these businesses downtown by at least bringing those 3,000 to 4,000 people closer to the Main Street district.
There also is a push to create an art district along Main Street and people will bring a train into a town to visit those types of day stops or weekend stops and that will certainly convert to dollars for those business and gallery owners.
Councilman Brian Wright has said he’s not sure he thinks the city should spend that money annually. Councilman Mark Lair has asked what happens if the council votes against the agreement. Councilman Chad Cangas said he didn’t think moving the depot was a bad idea, but wanted to know how to tell his constituents that it was a good fiscal decision.
A lot of time you just don’t know. But we agree with Greenwald when he said the city will find out if they don’t do it.
Leaving that depot where it is may cost us the stop. Moving it certainly opens up the possibility of helping business owners downtown. Isn’t that potential alone, knowing that you’ve already spent over half a million prepping the place, a reason to move forward?
By the way, Fort Madison mayoral candidates Chris Sorrentino and Brad Randolph were campaigning from the rodeo parade Saturday. Randolph rode a segway, which is a homonym for ‘segue’, a seemless move from one act to another without interruption….hmmm.
But that’s Beside the Point.