Council OKs feasibility study for depot renovation

Published on Thu, Sep 25, 2008 by Tara Nelson

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Council OKs feasibility study for depot renovation

By Tara Nelson

A major piece of Blaine’s railway history could remain intact if the results of a feasibility study approved by Blaine City Council are favorable.

In their regular meeting Monday, the council voted 4-3 to finance a study that would examine the cost feasibility of moving and renovating the city’s 98-year-old Burlington Northern/Santa Fe (BNSF) train depot from its current location to the site of the proposed Plover Park at the end of Milhollin Drive.

There, it would serve as a terminal for the Plover ferry. Along with the projected pedestrian overpass connecting the boat launching area with the H Street plaza, the ferry will provide easy pedestrian access to downtown from Semiahmoo.

Supporters such as Drayton Harbor Maritime (DHM) founding member Richard Sturgill hope the 3,100-square foot building will be refurbished to include a multi-purpose mix of community and commercial uses such as coffee shop, community meeting rooms and a storage facility for youth sailing programs.

The city had recommended its preservation in its waterfront development plan in November, 2007 under the recommendation of DHM. Since then, the organization and BNSF’s real estate representatives said that the facility could be made available for a nominal cost if it were moved from the present site.

Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic said the port has conceptually agreed to make the park property available to the city for the development of the park, but they have not yet agreed to allow the depot building on the site.

Tomsic, however, added that timing could be critical since BNSF had recently informed the city the building has other speculative buyers. And while he said the city supports the depot renovation, there have been no analyses done with regards to the costs involved.

“We’ve had some pretty good estimates done on moving in the range of $15,000 to $25,000 but we don’t have any estimates about how much it would cost to renovate,” he said. “Richard Sturgill said he had a friend who estimated $350,000, although he has indicated that’s an estimate in which he doesn’t have a high degree of confidence.”

Monday’s decision came after an intense debate between council members as to whether the city should provide seed money for the project or require community groups, such as the Drayton Harbor Maritime group, to do so.

Council members Jason Overstreet, Harry Robinson and Scott Dodd voted no on the proposal. Council members Bonnie Onyon, Paul Greenough, Charlie Hawkins and John Liebert voted yes.

Overstreet said while he supported the idea of saving the depot, he was fearful of the project incrementally growing into something the city had not anticipated.

“This was exactly my fear when this was rammed into the wharf master plan last year and my comment then was no,” he said. “Not that I don’t support this. I’m a big fan of that building, and it could be an amazing asset, but it’s not the council’s job to move and renovate train stations.”

Greenough disagreed, arguing that it should be the council’s job to develop seed money for projects that would be beneficial to the city over the long-term.

“We should be prepared to front a small amount of money on a gamble, just as putting a sign out on the interstate is a gamble,” he said. “We should take a gamble some times,” he concluded.

Robinson said he was in support of the project but that the city should require DHM to provide cost estimates for moving, renovation and maintenance.

Dodd said while he supported the idea for the building, he was concerned about the financial liability the city would incur from ownership.

“The cost of getting it set up is one thing, but the end result of having to maintain it is another,” he said. “I love that building, but I think it would be better provided for by a private entity taking it over.”

Hawkins disagreed, adding that DHM is a volunteer organization with little or no financial resources, minus the small amount of revenue from operating the Plover ferry.

“They are a volunteer organization and for them to do that is a big deal,” he said. “Further, they do a tremendous amount of work for the city.”

Onyon agreed, noting the overwhelming success of the Drayton Harbor sailing program, which the city granted $1,500 last spring for start-up costs.

“That $1,500 really gave them a jumpstart,” she said. “They were extremely successful and now they’re in the black. If we don’t do this, it won’t get done because I just don’t think DHM has the money to do it. Then we will be risking someone taking it out from under us without us even having a chance.”

The study will be funded through the city’s parks and cemetery budget.

The depot was first used on March 15, 1909, when a Consolidation steam engine made its way south on a new coastal line that Great Northern Railway owner James J. Hill built to connect with a railway and ferry service to Vancouver Island. Until then, trains ran through town roughly along 8th Street and then southeast along the east side of Yew Avenue where the old road bed can still be seen.

Today, almost 100 years later, the BNSF wants to put in a third track. The depot is in the way and will be demolished unless plans can be made to move it. If so, the railroad will give it away. Moving costs, however, could be costly.

“But the enhancement to Blaine’s waterfront could be priceless,” Sturgill said.

Jack Kintner contributed to this story.