Montevideo City Council members ponder relative values of heritage center and facility for custom-building rail cars
MONTEVIDEO — History and economic development collided in Montevideo over a rail yard, but City Council members still hold hope of avoiding an absolute wreck.
They asked Kevin Wald, CEO of Spec Sys, to continue working with the city on the possibility of developing a facility for custom-building rail cars in or near the city, but preferably at a site other than the Milwaukee Road Heritage Center and Museum.
Wald said he would, after a standing-room only crowd filled the Montevideo City Council chambers on Monday to weigh in on the issue.
“(We must) do everything in our power to make this work out anyway we possibly can,’’ said council member Bryce Curtiss.
His comments came after council members — and members of the public — voiced their concerns about preserving the integrity of the seven-acre, Milwaukee Road Heritage Center and Museum on the southern end of the downtown.
It’s the one location within the community that would work for the expansion being planned, according to Wald, and he has asked the city to lease the property to his company for that purpose.
Ritalka, a part of Spec Sys, currently relies on a house-moving firm to move its custom-built cars on to railroad tracks. The company is proposing a three-phase project to develop a facility along railroad tracks. It would initially create 20 new jobs, and eventually grow to offer 75 new jobs, Wald told council members.
He also indicated that there is urgency in getting the project underway, whether the location is in Montevideo, Watson or Clarkfield, among the candidate sites. “A good answer now is better than a perfect answer a year from now,’’ said Wald.
He is looking for $1 million or more in public financing to make the project possible.
Montevideo and other candidate communities have been working with state and regional agencies to provide the public financing being sought.
Montevideo City Manager Steve Jones said the financing will likely be arranged no matter the site — or community — that Ritalka eventually selects.
For Montevideo, the issue is the site. The city was unable to work out a land swap with the Twin Cities & Western Railroad that would have provided a suitable site south of the Heritage Center site. A site to the north is located in the floodplain: Wald said he had to move out of his original manufacturing plant there when geese were at the front door during the 1997 flood.
The city currently leases the seven-acre site to the Milwaukee Road Heritage Center and Museum, which has operated there for 20 years. That lease expires at the end of this year.
“Once history is lost it’s not coming back,’’ said June Lynne, director of the Chippewa County Historical Society. She was among the local residents who took to the podium to tell council members they did not want to lose the city’s historic site. It holds a roundtable, depot, train cars, water tower and other features that tell the story of the Milwaukee Road’s history in the community.
“Why should we destroy something for 20 jobs, maybe 75 jobs someday, when there are other sites?’’ said Joyce Kron of Clara City, whose father once worked in the rail yard.
Jim Ruether, president of the Heritage Center, said the nonprofit organization has invested more than $300,000 in the site. It brings tourism to the community, and preserves the community’s heritage. “It can’t be moved and still protect the historical significance of the railroad yard,’’ said Ruether.
Council members also expressed their concerns about losing that heritage, as well as their reluctance to pull the rug out from under the nonprofit Heritage group. “Morally, (I) cannot pull a lease because he has deeper pockets,’’ said council member Karen Nieuwbeerta.
Council member Todd Hay also noted that it may be difficult to clean up contamination and transfer ownership at the site in the time frame Wald desires for the project.
Wald suggested that it may be possible for both the Heritage Center and the company to co-exist at the site, and possibly for the better. He said that two of the Heritage site’s founders had once urged him to locate there. “They repeatedly said we will never make it on charity alone,’’ he said.