By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — The Colfax Plan Commission has recommended the village board not accept an offer from the Colfax Railroad Museum of $3,500 for village-owned property in Soo Park to use for a miniature train ride.
The Colfax Plan Commission met June 14 to discuss the Soo Park parcel, located south of the railroad tracks between the Colfax Railroad Museum and Park Drive.
The area in question is two parcels: Outlot 1, which measures 812 square feet, and Outlot 2, which measures 24,088 square feet, or a little more than half an acre.
The Colfax Railroad Museum, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, has purchased miniature train ride cars and a set of tracks.
“We can live with what we have, but additional land would make it a more useful site,” said Herb Sakalaucks Jr., chairman of the railroad museum.
The amount of land that is available for the miniature train ride will determine the length and configuration of the tracks.
The extra land also would be useful for a heritage festival for Colfax, Sakalaucks said.
The Colfax Commercial Club has discussed the possibility of holding a multi-day festival featuring re-enactment groups, such as Vikings, Civil War, Voyageurs, pioneer groups that meet in what is typically called a Rendezvous and the Spanish-American War.
Colfax has several parks that could be used as locations for historical re-enactment groups.
The heritage festival would be a way to bring tourism to Colfax and additional customers for restaurants and taverns, Sakalaucks told the plan commission.
Part of the Soo Park parcel contains a platted extension for Park Drive that would curve to the east and is situated between Park Drive and Roosevelt Street.
If the village were to vacate the platted portion of Park Drive to increase the size of the parcel available, then 50 percent of the street right-of-way would have to be deeded over to adjoining landowners, said Lynn Niggemann, village administrator-clerk-treasurer.
The platted portion of Park Drive is 25 feet wide. The cost for recent street projects on Third Avenue and Fourth Avenue has been around $350,000.
The Colfax Railroad Museum also owns about a half an acre purchased from the Canadian National Railroad, and some of the vacated street would have to be deeded to the railroad museum as an adjoining landowner, Niggemann said.
The Colfax Railroad Museum also plans to develop the wooden depot on Main Street as part of the museum and as a small event center that could accommodate children’s birthday parties, for example, Sakalaucks said.
The museum’s plans include installing paved parking on the wooden depot’s parcel and to connect to Park Drive so vehicles entering the property from Main Street could leave the site by Park Drive rather than backing out onto Main Street next to the railroad crossing, Sakalaucks explained.
The Colfax Railroad Museum estimates the train ride would increase the museum’s visitor count by 4,000 people per year, he said.
The ownership of the Soo Park parcel was somewhat in limbo since the early 1900s. The parcel originally was intended to be a park, but the parcel was never titled to the village.
A small article in the November 26, 1916, edition of the Colfax Messenger was able to shed some light on the situation. Under the headline, “Colfax Expands,” it was reported, “A company has been formed and a move is on foot to annex the tract of land just south of the Soo Line station as an addition to the village, and a portion of the survey it is planned to set aside as a park to be beautified with trees and flowers. Then a park drive is to be part of the addition, which in all will be a fine improvement to the village, if carried out according to present plans. Geo. T. Vorland, G.W. Emmerton, etal, are the promoters, and the company is styled the ‘Colfax Improvement Company.’”
The Colfax Improvement Company dissolved in 1919, and the parcel was not deeded to the village.
In May of 2016, the Colfax Village Board agreed to contract with Cedar Corporation in the amount of $2,750 to survey the parcel.
Depending on how much land is available, either with or without the platted street, the appraised value of the parcel is between $16,000 and $20,000.
The Colfax Railroad Museum currently has a grant request pending with Wells Fargo to help develop the wooden depot and the site, Sakalaucks said.
The museum has already received a $2,000 grant from the Dunn County Community Foundation to lay the track for the miniature train ride, he said.
The museum is working on refurbishing the train cars as money becomes available, Sakalaucks said.
Railroad items stored on the museum’s property are spare parts that can be sold to other museums, and the money is used to improve the Colfax Railroad Museum, he said.
Train car wheel assemblies (also known as trucks) were sold to a museum in Canada last year, Sakalaucks said.
Sakalaucks’ original proposal included asking the village to donate the vacant land in Soo Park to the Colfax Railroad Museum.
Gary Stene, chair of the plan commission and village president, said he had identified five options: do nothing; sell the land in Outlot 1 and 2; vacant the road and sell the land; donate the land to the museum; or negotiate a price with the museum.
“Herb wants to move on, one way or the other,” Stene said.
Sakalaucks indicated the museum is ready to lay the track for the miniature train ride, but the configuration of the track depends on the space available.
Mike Buchner, plan commission member, said “it makes sense” for the railroad museum to develop the Soo Park parcel but said he was not in favor of giving away the property if it had some value.
David Wolff, village trustee and plan commission member, said he was “on the same wavelength.”
“I would like to see it go to the museum but not just hand it over,” Wolff said, adding he would be willing to negotiate a price that is workable for the museum.
Nancy Hainstock, plan commission member, said she was not in favor of donating the land, but by the same token, “I don’t see any other use for the land.”
The museum probably has “the biggest interest” in the land. If a duplex were built on the parcel, would anyone want to live that close to the railroad tracks? Hainstock said.
Dave Hovre, plan commission member, said he was not at all in favor of donating the land.
Other small towns have railroad museums that are “neat and nice to look at” but the Colfax Railroad Museum is an eyesore and contains piles of junk, he said.
Hovre said he was of the opinion nothing should be done “until the railroad museum is cleaned up.”
Sakalaucks asked which “other” railroad museums Hovre had seen.
When Hovre mentioned the museum in Ladysmith, Sakalaucks said the Ladysmith museum was funded by the village, unlike the Colfax Railroad Museum, which has been struggling to find funding.
“That’s their problem,” Hovre snapped.
Sakalaucks retired a few years ago and said he now has more time to work at the museum and has kept working, even while he was recovering from several major surgeries.
“It’s all junk,” Hovre insisted.
What some might think is “junk” goes to other museums to restore their rail cars, Sakalaucks said.
Several years ago, former Colfax resident Donald Binder was convicted of stealing iron from the railroad museum that was, in fact, parts for restoring train cars. A Dunn County Circuit Court judge ordered Binder to pay $6,000 in restitution, although the restitution has never been paid.
Both this year and last year, the railroad museum has had university interns to help with the work, Sakalaucks noted.
“I don’t like the looks of it,” Hovre said, adding that if the museum adds a miniature train car ride, “other crap might come too.”
Niggemann asked what the timeline would be for the railroad museum.
Much depends on whether the museum receives grant money. The railroad museum has a budget of $10,000 per year. Admissions account for between $2,000 and $4,000 in revenue, and another $4,000 to $6,000 in revenue comes from the sale of items, Sakalaucks said.
“Can I tell you we will have everything done next year? No,” he said.
Nancy Hainstock, plan commission member, asked if the museum planned to acquire more train cars.
“There is no more room, so no more cars,” Sakalaucks said.
Stene said he was hearing from the other plan commission members that they thought the Soo Park parcel was a good spot for the railroad museum but were not willing to give away the land.
“Would you want to come back with an offer?” Stene asked.
The village is giving lots away in the East View housing development, and those lots are not moving, Sakalaucks noted.
Sakalaucks then offered $3,500 for the parcel.
“If we only get $3,500 for it, we might as well keep it,” Hovre said.
Sakalaucks clarified he was offering $3,500 for the parcel without the additional footage from vacating the platted street.
If other people want to develop their property on the south side of the platted Park Drive, they will want a road, he said.
The Colfax Plan Commission voted five “yes” to one “no,” to recommended the Colfax Village Board not accept the offer of $3,500 from the Colfax Railroad Museum for Outlots 1 and 2.
Hovre, Buchner, Hainstock and Wolff voted in favor of the motion. Stene voted against the motion.
The plan commission’s recommendation was on the agenda for the Colfax Village Board’s June 25 meeting.