Plans for 2017 Polar Express in limbo
By John Howell
The City of Batesville will not grant the Polar Express Train Ride rights to use the Public Square until local vendors have been paid for services provided last year, according Mayor Jerry Autrey.
“They know that we can’t give them a lease on the Square unless they take care of last year’s problems; that’s the only card we’ve got to play,” Autrey said, in reply to a question from Alderman Dennis Land during Tuesday’s meeting of the board of mayor and aldermen.
“I’ve had a lot of people asking about it,” Land said, triggering grunts in agreement from other aldermen.
Grenada Railway operated the Polar Express Train Ride in Batesville for two successful seasons in 2015 and 2016 before local vendors began complaining that they had not been paid for contracted security personnel, management/catering, set construction and other services from the second season.
“We are expecting to operate Polar Express in 2017,” Ed Ellis, CEO of Iowa Pacific Holdings, parent company of Grenada Railway, stated in an e-mail to The Panolian last week.
(See commentary, “What’s up with Polar Express? Grenada RR,” published in the Friday, July 28 edition.)
“It’s not happening here unless they take care of all their old debt,” Autrey said. “It’s in limbo right now. If they don’t do something this month, I don’t think they’re going to do it. They’re running out of time.”
“If they’re going to have it this fall they’ve got to start selling tickets in the next 30 days,” Alderman Stan Harrison said.
“Somebody said they’re already selling tickets online,” Alderman Bill Dugger said.
“Not yet,” Alderman Teddy Morrow said, adding that the Grenada web site (www.grenadapolarexpressride.com/buy-tickets) says only that Polar Express is “Coming Soon.”
“They should let somebody know something, one way or another,” Morrow added.
The uncertainty over Polar Express appeared to create skepticism with at least one alderman about another request that had been made by a Grenada Railways official earlier in the meeting.
Grenada Railroad, LLC Marketing Manager Robert Warrick asked the city to consider reopening a rail spur on Highway 51 South between Andersen Technologies and the Finch-Henry Job Corps Center (FHJCC).
“Grenada Railway has a possible user who would like to be able to unload some aggregates, possibly,” City Engineer Blake Mendrop said.
“A little bit of work would need to be done on ties,” Mendrop said.
“Are they going to pay for the repairs to it?” the mayor asked.
“The spur hasn’t got a switch on it,” Harrison said. “It’s going to have to be all redone.”
Assistant City Attorney Colmon Mitchell said that he is researching the city’s agreement with FHJCC to determine ownership.
“Normally on a public delivery track, it’s there for anybody to use… where anybody could come down here and unload a boxcar or whatever,” said Warrick, who added that the railroad owns most public delivery tracks.
“This one, the city somewhere along the line put that (the Andersen/FHJCC spur) in,” Warrick continued.
“I know it’s been used to unload aggregates; there’s a huge concrete dock out there where you can unload machinery and things like that,” the rail official said. “It’s a great track for industrial development purposes.”
“My goal is to get your approval to get it going again. I’m going to my best to get in touch with users to pony up some dollars to put it back,” Warrick said. “Unfortunately our predecessors … wanted to abandon all railroads so that was just part of it: take up the spurs to the industries. If there’s no industry spurs, there’s no more customers, so let’s abandon it,” he continued. “I can count out four or five switches which were just gone overnight.”
“Are you going to try to get some people to raise some money to build the switch back?” Harrison asked.
“A lot of times it’s a partnership between the shippers, the railroad and the owners of the track,” Warrick replied.
“How much is it going to cost to fix it?” Harrison asked.
“That’s being worked on right now,” Warrick replied. “I figure around $60,000 to $80,000.”
There was further discussion among aldermen, the mayor and attorney about the spur ownership.
“What do you need us to do today?” Harrison asked the city engineer.
“This is more just for information,” Mendrop replied.
“Just bless us,” Attorney Mitchell told the mayor and aldermen, “because we’re going to have to do some work to figure this thing out.”
The work includes coordination between Grenada Railway and Panola Partnership CEO Joe Azar to determine industry needs and cost estimates.
“The plant manager at Andersen Technology also asked me to bring up to consider the road that’s out there now, “Azar said, “if we were to do this, that road needs paving real bad. That would be the road that they share coming in to his driveway.”
“It would bring money to the city; it would bring money to the railroad; it’s a win for everybody,” said Warrick. “It’s one of the smaller assets we want to get moving again.”
Before moving to the next item on the agenda, city officials discussed briefly with Warrick the feasibility of reopening the spur that crossed Highway 35 at the Compress building.
“I guess they’re wanting us to put this spur down there,” Dugger said later in the meeting during discussion of the Polar Express. “I’m not sure who we’re dealing with.”
“Right now, I’m not worried about the spur, I’m worried about the Polar Express,” the mayor said.