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Robert Franzen discusses his plans with the Hampshire County Development Authority, including Executive Director Eileen Johnson and board members Hoy Shingleton and Mark Gandolfi.

Tourism train pitches $21 million expansion

Proposal includes new tracks, depot, hotel and repair shop

ROMNEY — It could be “one of the largest economic development projects in Hampshire County ever,” Robert Franzen told the Hampshire County Development Authority last Wednesday, as he asked for a 35-acre site to bring the Potomac Eagle to the Romney Industrial Park.

It would cost $6.5 million just for tracks and grading to bring the train to the industrial park, and Franzen’s plans also include a $3.2 million train depot, a $3.5 million maintenance facility and an $8 million hotel and conference center on a site stretching up the north side of the industrial park, to the right of the entrance road.

For the 29 years before Robert and Celeste Franzen bought it, the Potomac Eagle had been “sort of a basic operation, but successful,” Franzen said.

In their first year of operation, they have seen a 56-percent increase in ridership, despite “a lot of chaos,” and a 67-percent increase in revenue — not all profit, since costs increased too, he said.

Last year they added the North Pole Express, the first Christmas train sponsored by the Potomac Eagle itself instead of the Romney Chamber of Commerce.

This year should have brought continued growth, though “with the coronavirus, it’s hard to say,” Franzen acknowledged, saying “it could really kill our numbers this year.”

Plans for the year are to start operations May 2, and to add a Friday-night sunset trough train, as well as new classes of service: Premier Club with an upgraded menu, First Class, and table cars with box lunches.

“Eventually we’ll run year-round,” Franzen said, describing plans to move back the start date slowly, a month at a time, until the train runs January through December. They will add more special-events trains, and are increasing their marketing budget.

However, the current Potomac Eagle facility lacks the parking and infrastructure needed to expand. The only way they can handle more people there is to run more trains, and the tracks are used by freight trains Monday through Thursday, limiting the Potomac Eagle to 3 days a week.

If granted the site at the industrial park, the Franzens will apply for a BUILD grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The “Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development” program would help fund the first stage of a 3-part expansion project.

Franzen said they have a chance to get a grant this year — but the deadline is May 18. He asked for help with the grant, as well as use of the site. If the hoped-for grant does not come through, they will seek other sources of funding.

The 1st stage of the project would add tracks and grading to bring the train in, as well as a depot with a restaurant, museum, restrooms, waiting room and ticket office, and a large meeting space available year-round.

Stage 2 would add a 200-by-80-foot building to replace the small Potomac Eagle maintenance shed in Vanderlip. Steam Services of America, a sister company the Franzens own in North Carolina, would rent the facility and bring in contract work to help support it.

Further development would include a greenbelt and walking trails, with a scenic overlook and outdoor amphitheater, since a lot of the industrial park acreage is not buildable. A hotel and conference center would be placed on the highest point of land, with a view down the valley.

The development will bring jobs to the area. 15 new Potomac Eagle jobs were added last year, and there will be 5 more this year. The train will eventually employ up to 50 people, with the maintenance facility requiring up to 82, and the hotel up to 171.

Development Authority Executive Director Eileen Johnson noted that a small part of the acreage requested has been committed to another prospective tenant, but this could be “carved out” of the site.

It was noted that the agreement Franzen asked would commit acreage for the completion of later planned stages of the Potomac Eagle project, making it unavailable to other prospective tenants. HCDA President Greg Bohrer asked members to consider the impact on the tax base as well.

No decision was made at last week’s meeting.

Authority board members were given copies of Franzen’s presentation and urged to study them before a special session to be called later this month to review the annual financial audit, at which time they could decide on Franzen’s project.

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