Railroad, let's make a deal

Monday, October 8, 2012

Might just be me, but whenever a large corporation offers to cut you a "deal," you should feel for your back pocket and make sure your wallet is still there.

Such is the case with the proposed offer by the Canadian National Railroad to give the rundown depot building to the City of Storm Lake. A big-hearted philanthropic gift? Not quite.

In fact, this deal seems only slightly removed from blackmail.

Stripped down to its bones, this is how the deal really goes: If the City wants to save its historic structure, it has to agree to close down streets at crossings, which will save the railroad work and money. The railroad wants those crossings gone badly enough that they will even hand the City a little cash for making that decision.

What, exactly, does an effort to preserve a historical building have to do with railroad crossings blocks away? Nothing. It's simply leverage for a large corporation to get what it wants from a community.

If railroad execs cared about that depot, it wouldn't have been allowed to fall into the sad condition it is today. Or ignored the volunteers who have tried so hard for a decade to obtain the depot so it could be preserved. An international transportation corporatation that earned over $630 million in the last quarter can't afford a few shingles, or to shovel snow off a pedestrian crossing?

What really should bother us is the way this deal is being packaged.

City officials say the railroad is giving them only until December to accept the terms, otherwise the depot will be torn down in very short order. It's stood vacant for years and years with officials of railroads doing nothing, but now all of a sudden there's a deadline, of just weeks? Either do what the corporation wants, it looks like, or a National Register of Historic Places site gets the 'dozer, and it'll all look like the city council's fault.

Baloney. If the railroad tears down the depot, it will be the railroad choosing to destroy a historic site that it had every opportunity to see preserved, period.

Let's tell it like it is. What has really spurred this offer is that railroad executives have intentionally allowed an important structure to deteriorate to the point where it is a hazard and an eyesore. That is all on them.

Now it is looking at a point where it is going to have to spend some considerable cash money to demolish a building that could be condemned.

By offering the City a "deal," it can get this pesky liability moved off its property to where it can be someone else's problem, and not have to pay a penny of moving costs or restoration, and come off looking like the white knight in the process.

And if it can get more street crossings closed in the same deal, and shed that upkeep, crossing devices cost and liability burden, that's gravy.

What does the city get? A dilapidated building that has already been stripped of some of the things that once gave it character - a huge moving bill when we are not even sure it is sound enough to move, and the daunting task of coming up with a whole lot of money on a continuing basis to put it into some kind of shape where it may be of use to the public again.

When it comes to the street crossings, that issue needs to be addressed on its own merit, or lack of same.

The city council shouldn't dead-end our community's streets because of barter offers or ultimatums from the railroad.

If crossings are closed, it should be because our public safety people and residents of those areas feel they need to be closed. Because once the cement is torn up and the reflector signs planted, those streets are never coming back to be what they were.

We've closed several already. We should take a close look at them and see if the change has been for the best. Is our town safer or more attractive for it? It is easier for traffic to get around than it was, or have we just made people go out of their way? What about access for emergency vehicles? Worn paths into the weeds and rocks tend to make me think people are going onto the tracks, even if a pedestrian crossing is taken out.

These are the kind of things we should be asking if we consider closing crossings - not what booty we get out of a deal in exchange for accepting the railroad's desires.

Crossings are our decision, as a community, the people who use those streets; not a decison to be made in a corporate office in Montreal for the benefit of railroad shareholders.

Are we allowed to make a counter-offer here?

How about this: the railroad donates the building and the site where it wants it moved to, and pays for the building to be moved. The city then relieves it of liability and takes up the responsibility and cost to work on restoration, if restoration is still feasible. We'll put up a big plaque thanking the railroad for its kindness and with a little finagling they can probably write the whole mess off their taxes and be done with a headache and maybe save a few bucks in property tax. Everybody wins.

As for the crossings, we'd promise to discuss the issue - and make those decisions ourselves, for the right reasons. And they could keep the money they offered to try to grease that deal through. That's fair.

Otherwise, I'd say it's time for our code officer to take a real close look at that depot, and start mandating cleanup and issuing fines for violations. If you had a garage with the roof falling in, windows boarded over and junk laying around, it would get some attention, I'll bet. Fair is fair.

We don't have a lot of historical sites in Storm Lake - we've lost many long ago that we wish today we still had. I can only think of three places we have on the National Register.

Unfortunately, being on the register does not provide any protection from a site being torn down or allowed to deteriorate. The depot is private property of the railroad, and with that comes rights as well as the responsibilities. We recognize their rights to decisions regarding their own property, but see nothing to be lost in discussion and an open mind on working with the City for a resolution that will benefit all.

If the building can be restored, it would be great to see it happen. I envision one day that a trolley could even run a round trip, from King's Pointe to the BVU campus to a genuine railroad station right in our downtown.

Inside, perhaps a community welcome center, a museum with a great model train layout, or maybe a cool themed restaurant or some funky little artists' shops. It's a project we could be, "all aboard."

Another thing to bring people to Storm Lake. Turning liabilities into attractions is what the very best communities do.

We have an opportunity here. But if a deal is to be made, it should be a deal that benefits both sides and doesn't stick the public with an undue share of burden.