Friday, Dec 09, 2016
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Genoa rail museum gathers momentum

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`We have the plan. All we need is the permission to go ahead with it,' says Kirk Hise, center, a retired railroad worker, who has joined with Charlie Sheets, president of the Waterfront Electric Railway Museum, and Ellen Bergman to save the old Genoa trolley depot, which is behind them.

Morrison / Blade photo Enlarge

On Genoa's east side, where others might see scraggly weeds creeping up the side of this crumbling limestone depot, Charlie Sheets envisions lines of eager children.

While others spy bees' nests and thistles, Ellen Bergman sees education - not to mention tourists' dollars.

This century-old train depot, though dilapidated and slathered with a weathered peach paint, could be the most tangible component of an ambitious project that would highlight Ottawa County's part in the once-bustling trolley business.

For historians and train buffs, a trolley museum would be the grand finale of sorts to an expanded circle tour of Ottawa County, connecting the county's water-linked tourist trade in the east with its transportation and historical roots in the west.

Just next door to the train depot, in fact, is one of the area's oldest one-room schoolhouses. Also in the plans would be restored trolleys, at least one of them from Ottawa County, that would run the perimeter of the park.

“This is a perfect way to unite the county,” said Karen Kruse, a member of Friends of the Interurban, the group behind the effort. “We'd like the east end to know the west end exists.”

But for all its promise, the project has sparked concern.

“I'm not against it,” Mayor Joe Verkin said. “But there's a multitude of questions that have to be answered before I'll make a commitment.

“Who's going to run this?” he said. “Who's going to maintain it? Who's going to maintain liability insurance?”

Councilman Luther Goodeman agreed. “There's a lot of ifs there,” he said.

A public information meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall to discuss the plans. An official vote is not expected for some time.

The proposed trolley museum actually is a merging of three different efforts.

Kirk Hise, a Genoa resident and retired railroad employee, more than a year ago began lobbying to save the old depot, which is on Clay Township-owned land inside the Genoa village limits.

About the same time, Ms. Kruse and several history buffs were looking at expanding the Lake Erie Circle Tour, a 700-mile driving tour circling the lake, to include several other Ottawa County historical sites.

Thirdly, Mr. Sheets, president of the Waterfront Electric Railway Museum, was looking for a new home. Now in Grand Rapids, Ohio, the museum never has realized its potential, in part because it's cut off from the rest of the community by distance from downtown, he said.

In fact, only about 50 visitors have dropped by the museum so far this year, he said.

The museum's collection of two engines and five trolley cars, track, poles and copper wire, and other electric railway equipment is “a logical fit” for Genoa's old depot and another stop on the Circle Tour, Mr. Sheets said.

But it won't be cheap.

The former depot, now filled from floor to ceiling with picnic tables and other surplus, is virtually unrecognizable as its former self. Mottled cement patch scars its north side, where the turret that provided the electricity to the electric cables once stood.

Windows have been bricked over and painted. The Washington Street fa ade has been broken with garage doors. The roof needs to be replaced.

But the Grand Rapids museum and all its assets simply can be transplanted to Genoa - as well as its nonprofit status - making it easier to apply for historical restoration grants, Mr. Hise said.

Moreover, there'd be money from the sale of the Grand Rapids site, according to a project plan drawn up by the Friends of the Interurban.

“We have the plan. All we need is the permission to go ahead with it,” Mr. Hise said.

The group certainly will have support at its Wednesday meeting. Councilman Betsy Slotnick said she's heard concerns like Mr. Verkin's and Mr. Goodeman's but believes the idea is profitable and the complexities can be ironed out.

“The exact details aren't worked out yet, but this is only step one,” she said, noting that the village at this point is asked only to give an informal go-ahead. “Let's take care of step one before we're worrying so much about step five.”

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