By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Colfax can expect to soon have a miniature train ride.
The Colfax Village Board unanimously approved selling Soo Park to the Colfax Railroad Museum at the July 23 board meeting for $3,500 and an agreement for the museum to pay for finishing the portion of Park Drive from where it ends now to connect with the museum’s property.
Eric Turner, director of the Dunn County Economic Development Corporation, said during the public comments portion of the meeting he was in support of the railroad museum’s effort to purchase Soo Park.
Herb Sakalaucks, curator of the Colfax Railroad Museum, has acquired a miniature train ride and the tracks necessary to operate the ride along with a $2,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Dunn County to install the train ride.
Considering all of the villages in Dunn County, Colfax is the most aggressive about development, Turner said.
Several years ago, the village board accepted a grant through the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission to conduct the Power of 10 workshop.
Village residents, business owners, village employees and people employed in the village participated in the workshop to identify areas in Colfax that could be improved or highlighted to attract visitors and to make Colfax a more welcoming place.
The premise of the Power of 10 is to construct a “bread crumb trail” that will lead people from one place to the next and encourage visitors to explore.
One idea that came out of the Power of 10 included installing bike racks to encourage bicyclists on the Dunn County bike trail, which comes in on county Highway B, travels Railroad Avenue, and continues to county Highway N, to stop in town.
Another idea was to install more way-finding signs around town.
Yet another idea was to find ways to slow down traffic on Main Street so visitors would feel safer and more inclined to cross the street.
The people conducting the workshop — and they had done Power of 10 workshops all over the world — were particularly impressed Colfax has a railroad museum and were convinced the museum had the potential to draw tens of thousands of visitors.
The Power of 10 report is available on the village’s website under the “village board” tab at the top of the page — www.villageofcolfaxwi.org
One of the areas identified in the Power of 10 workshop was the railroad museum, Turner noted.
“Sometimes you have to give a little to get a little to (then) get a lot,” he said.
Turner pointed out he used to own property in the Soo Park area. The property had been in his family for a long time and had belonged to his grandfather, Leon Turner, to his father and then had come to him.
Unfortunately, there was no way to develop the property because there was no road to get to the property, Turner said.
Soo Park was given to the village to develop as a park in the early 1900s. For whatever reason, the property was never properly deeded to the village, so the lot sat there for nearly a hundred years, with no deed and no owner.
Soo Park has never generated any tax money for the village, Turner pointed out.
“You have a gem in the railroad museum,” he said.
People who come to Colfax for the railroad museum and the miniature train ride will stop at the stops in town and at the restaurants and the bars, Turner said.
For the past 80 years, there has been no street past Soo Park and the property has done nothing for the village, he said.
The Certified Survey Map (CSM) of the area includes a platted street running east and west containing several curves to make it a “park drive.”
Jim Zons of Colfax, a supervisor on the Dunn County Board and a member of the county board’s Community Resources and Tourism Committee, also spoke to the village board.
Tourism has become a big focus of the CRT committee, he said.
The committee is planning to work on building tourism that goes beyond Menomonie to bring tourism to the outer reaches of Dunn County, Zons said.
The railroad museum is essential to draw people to Colfax, he said.
Colfax has “great places to eat,” and it is a “picturesque” town, Zons said.
When businesses are looking for employees, they want people to settle in the area, and people want to settle where there are attractions and things to do, he said.
The Colfax Railroad Museum is an integral part of a draw outside Menomonie, Zons said.
“We’ve had a hard time shaking the county to look beyond Menomonie. We are all in this together,” commented Gary Stene, village president.
Menomonie has a room tax to help fund tourism initiatives, but it is not the Menomonie county board, and the Menomonie room tax does not fund tourism in the county, Zons said.
There are many places in the county with something going on. Wheeler has started Wheeler Days, Ridgeland has Ridgeland Pioneer Days — and the railroad museum is a draw for Colfax, he said.
Bill Sakalaucks, chair of the Colfax Railroad Museum Board of Directors, spoke to the village board at the point in the agenda where the board was reconsidering the offer of the railroad museum.
The museum is ready to install the ride-on train. The second depot (the wooden building directly south of the railroad tracks) is being developed as an event space and as an archive for the books, magazines and films about trains the museum has acquired. And the Soo Park space, in addition to the train ride, will also be developed as a green space, Sakalaucks said.
Several other people attended the village board meeting in support of the railroad museum, and Sakalaucks asked that they be allowed to speak.
Mark Johnson identified himself as a village resident, a property owner and a business owner.
The public library and the railroad museum both bring people to Colfax, he said.
“I can with 100 percent conviction say I have business in my store because of the library, the railroad museum and the (events in the municipal building) auditorium,” said Johnson, the owner of the Colfax Arts and Antique Mall and Cafe II Coffee Shop and Bakery.
Herb Sakalaucks started the railroad museum, and now he is setting it up to be a self-sustaining attraction that will live on long after Herb Sakalaucks passes away, he said.
Johnson urged the village board to think about growth of the village for the future and growth for the businesses in town.
Colfax does not have a lake, like Hallie or Chetek, but Colfax does have a river and historic buildings, he said.
“We have to work with what we have and promote what we can,” Johnson said.
“I would encourage the board and future boards to keep an open mind on development,” he said.
Susan Hill, owner of the Tapestry Trunk Bed and Breakfast, pointed out that her establishment is about a hundred feet, across the street, from the Colfax Railroad Museum.
Hill said she was happy to report her bed and breakfast was operating as a success.
The Tapestry Trunk has brochures for the museum, and guests at the bed and breakfast often go over to the museum, she said.
Recent guests came from Michigan to stay at The Tapestry Trunk so they could buy something in which they were interested from the railroad museum, Hill said.
“I want to support the railroad museum … a train (ride) in the park would be fun!” she said.
The Colfax Railroad Museum does not only serve the people of Colfax, said Bill Sakalaucks.
While over one hundred people from Colfax toured the museum last year, visitors came from many different states, including Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan, he said.
The railroad museum also has had visitors from Canada, England, Norway, Russia, and the Netherlands as well as Oregon, Alaska, California, and Indiana.
The museum draws tourists, and when they are finished at the museum, they stop at A Little Slice of Italy, Cenex, the Blind Tiger, and “they patronize the village,” Sakalaucks said, noting senior citizen groups and school groups also have visited the museum.
The railroad museum would consider hiring a seasonal worker to help maintain the museum, to give train rides and to maintain the park area, he said.
The Colfax Railroad Museum has applied for a $120,000 grant that would, in part, include infrastructure for the wooden depot events center.
Stene asked about the status of the grant.
“I think we have a good shot at it,” Herb Sakalaucks said.
The grant also would fund a parking lot behind the garage east of the wooden depot and a tie into Park Drive.
The plan is to have visitors come in off Main Street and exit by Park Drive, rather than backing out onto Main Street, Herb Sakalaucks said.
Is the railroad museum willing to extend Park Drive for access to the museum property? Stene asked.
The grant has money for street infrastructure, and it would cost $10,000 to $15,000 to extend Park Drive to the museum’s property, Herb Sakalaucks said.
No one else has expressed interest in the Soo Park lot, but the railroad museum is interested and is following through on the Power of 10 and trying to develop tourism, he said.
The Colfax Railroad Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit, it is not “Herb’s museum,” Herb Sakalaucks said.
“It is a situation where I want the museum to exist after I’m gone,” he said.
Lynn Niggemann, village administrator-clerk-treasurer, and Rand Bates, director of public works, said, in fact, someone else was interested in the Soo Park lot.
Bill Sakalaucks wondered if the other interested party was at the village board meeting, but no one at the meeting indicated an interest in buying the lot from the village.
Carey Davis, village trustee, wondered how many years it would take to get the train ride up and running.
The museum is ready to lay the track for the train right now, Herb Sakalaucks said.
The ties have already been cut. Sand is needed to level the area, and then the rail can be set, he said.
Sakalaucks also has applied for another grant to further develop the wooden depot.
David Wolff, village trustee, asked when the museum could expect to hear about the second grant.
Grant awards will be made September 1, Sakalaucks said.
Wolff said he would like to see the train ride installed but that he also wanted to see the documents and videos preserved before they are lost.
The library items are now stored in the gray depot. The building has a heating system to keep them warm and dry in the winter, but the building needs humidity control in the summer, and that would be part of the second grant, Sakalaucks said.
Anne Jenson, village trustee, said she was not necessarily opposed to selling the piece of property to the Colfax Railroad Museum, but that she was opposed to selling it for $3,500.
Wolff, who also is a member of the Colfax Plan Commission, said commission members were opposed to selling the property for Sakalaucks’ offer of $3,500 as well.
At the June 14 meeting, the Colfax Plan Commission voted five “yes” to one “no,” to recommend the Colfax Village Board not accept the offer of $3,500 from the Colfax Railroad Museum for Outlots 1 and 2.
Initially, Sakalaucks had requested the village donate the property to the museum.
If the village board is “hung up” on the offer of $3,500, then the museum also will pay for the extension of Park Drive to the railroad museum’s property, said Bill Sakalaucks.
After the railroad museum develops the wooden depot so it can be open to the public, the village would be responsible for extending Park Drive to the museum property.
Davis said he wanted to put in his “two cents” and that the village should sell the property to the railroad museum with the hope the museum accomplishes everything in the plan to bring extra activity to the community.
Davis said he was “not a railroad man myself,” but acknowledged other people enjoy trains and railroad history and that he has interests other people do not share.
Davis made a motion, seconded by Village Trustee Mark Halpin, to accept the offer of $3,500 with an agreement that the Colfax Railroad Museum will finish Park Drive to the museum property, will develop a green space, will do the improvements in a “timely fashion,” will not resell the property, will pay all of the closing costs, and if the lot is not developed by the museum, the village has the right of first refusal.
The Colfax Village Board voted unanimously to approve the motion. In addition to Davis, Halpin, Jenson, Stene and Wolff voting in favor, Village Trustees Keith Burcham and Margaret Burcham also voted in favor.