The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad is changing tracks. Instead of building a new museum and rail line in Gray, the nonprofit railroad company that has operated on the eastern waterfront since 1993 with popular events like the Polar Express is staying in Portland.

The group recently received zoning approvals to build a new storage facility at the eastern terminus of the 2-foot-wide railway, near the East End Treatment Plant, and is seeking approvals to build a new ticketing booth and passenger center near Ocean Gateway.

The nonprofit plans to pay for the $2 million project with a capital campaign.

Executive Director Wesley Heinz said the nonprofit is finalizing site plans, which he said would only need administrative approval because of the project size and status as an accessory use to the rail line. He hopes to break ground on the new buildings this fall.

“It was all there,” Heinz said of the opportunity to stay in Portland. “We just needed to think outside the box.”

The Narrow Gauge Railroad needs to be out of its current location at 58 Fore St. by Sept. 2, he said. It’s being displaced as part of the redevelopment of the former railroad foundry into a new mixed-use neighborhood, Portland Foreside.

The nonprofit originally planned to move its museum to Gray, where it hoped to build a new rail line, but those plans were abandoned this year.

Heinz said a lack of funding played a small role, but the “show-stopper” was the inability to develop the property located next to a strip mall because it was a wetland.

The new plans emerge at a time of growth for the small rail company. Heinz said ridership has more than doubled in the past five years. Last year, over 60,000 people rode the Narrow Gauge, including the popular Polar Express train in the days leading up to Christmas, compared to 23,000 passengers in 2013, he said.

The nonprofit also is hosting more corporate events, in addition to new family events, including ice cream train rides and a Friday family fun night, which includes music, lights, juice and cookies.

“The business model really supported us staying here,” Heinz said in an interview aboard the train as it rattled along the eastern waterfront Monday. “As ridership grew, it became very apparent that we have a home here.”

Stephanie and Bob Holmes of New York took their 22-month-old granddaughter, Heidi, for her first trip on the train and were pleased to hear it would remain in Portland.

“She loved it,” Bob Holmes said. “She was waving to everyone.”

Plans call for a 1,000-square-foot passenger center and ticketing booth within the railroad right of way along Thames Street, near Ocean Gateway. The railroad also would build a 6,600-square-foot storage facility near the East End Treatment Plant. The city’s Zoning Board of Appeals granted a hardship variance for the nonprofit in May and reduced the shoreland zone setbacks from 75 feet to none.

Heinz said the new buildings are being considered an accessory use to the rail line. Portland has a long history of rail, which the current city has grown up around.

Heinz said that the nonprofit will probably have to use a temporary trailer, or simply sell tickets aboard the train, until the new passenger facility, which will have a waiting area and restrooms, is ready.

The new plan does not call for a museum. Instead, Heinz said a Narrow Gauge exhibit is being established at the Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway Museum in Alna, which also will run some of the Narrow Gauge’s trains.

Jerry Angier, a trustee who is leading the fundraising effort, said the railroad is determined to get the project built.

“We’ll do it as long as we need to do it until we have the funds to make this a success,” Angier said. “We’ll leave no stone unturned. And anyone who will listen will get the sales pitch.”


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