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Transportation museum rolls out expansion plan

June 18, 2007

Call it the little museum that could--or wants to, anyway.

After 47 years of relative anonymity, the Indiana Transportation Museum is steaming ahead with an effort to increase its visibility, attract new riders and eventually grow the organization.

This month, the Noblesville museum introduced an every-other-Saturday "Hoosier Heartland" train ride that introduces passengers to four Hamilton County communities, where they can tour gardens, hear stories and enjoy music. The train leaves Noblesville's Forest Park at 10:35 a.m. and stops in Cicero, Arcadia and Atlanta before returning at 4:10 p.m.

Best known for the FairTrain it operates during the Indiana State Fair, ITM added the excursion as part of grander plans that include extending its reach to Indianapolis' Union Station and moving from a volunteer-based organization to a paid staff.

The not-for-profit was founded in 1960 as an educational institution that preserves and teaches the history of Indiana railroads. The museum has 300 members, including 40 active volunteers who do everything from restoring, maintaining and driving the organization's historic trains to interacting with passengers on various excursions.

"Indiana was built on using railroads and that is how the state got its motto 'The Crossroads of America,'" said museum board Chairman Art Hall. "Trains played a huge part in Indiana economic development and it is the museum's mission to expose people to the history of trains and what they meant to Indiana."

The museum has only two paid employees, one of whom inspects the rails. The other was just hired to run an office in the Fishers Train Station, which also houses the Fishers Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to the new route and the FairTrain, ITM offers dinner excursions, trips to various festivals, and a wintertime "Polar Express" ride for children. Trains travel along a 40-mile stretch of track that runs from Tipton to 24th Street in Indianapolis.

The outdoor museum maintains about 100 pieces of equipment--including 14 stainless-steel coaches--on seven acres of tree-covered land in Noblesville. On weekends, visitors can pay $3 to wander the grounds and examine the historic trains and track.

The track is owned by the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority, which formed in 1995 to keep the line from being abandoned by the Norfolk Southern railroad.

Funding support

Hoosier Heartland debuted June 9 as a result of research the Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau conducted last year. In a survey of about 750 potential travelers, "a train excursion to a small town where you can sample gourmet Midwestern fare" was the most popular choice, said Executive Director Brenda Myers. Adding the route also could help economic development efforts by encouraging business growth along the rail line, she said.

To encourage ITM's expansion, the agency is giving the museum a total of $400,000 this year and next. The grant will help with marketing in hopes of attracting more passengers.

Some of the money already has been used to add an online reservation system, hire the administrative staff member in Fishers, put the trains on a regular cleaning schedule, and hire a consulting firm.

Myers said funding came from a 2-percentage-point increase in Hamilton County's innkeepers tax.

Hall said the expansion would not be possible now if it weren't for the grant. The museum's $500,000 budget, funded with membership dues and excursion fees, covers maintenance costs, but not much else.

The budget fluctuates depending on the number of riders each year. Hall said he does not have exact numbers for 2006, but the popular FairTrain carried about 20,000 riders to and from the state fair.

With the grant, the museum can cover additional expenses while still operating in the black, Myers said.

The novelty of ITM's excursions was another factor in awarding the grant. Although other places have railroad museums where visitors can see equipment or tourist railroads that take passengers from one point to another, Myers said the visitors bureau did not find another entity that connected so many communities and provided activities in conjunction with the train rides.

In central Indiana, the closest competitor is the Indiana Rail Road Co. in Indianapolis. Each December, the freight hauler sends its Santa Train to 12 communities over three days so children can see Santa, said Executive Assistant Leigh Darbee. It also operates an Indiana History Train in collaboration with the Indiana Historical Society. Historical exhibits are displayed in the coaches as part of a five-year project.

Despite those programs, Darbee said the railroad's main business is moving freight around the Midwest.

Plans

If ITM's expansion plans succeed, it likely will have to consider adding more paid staff, said Kirsten A. Gronbjerg of the Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy.

Managing the growth will take more time than volunteers realistically have, she said, and having a paid staff can give some assurance that day-to-day activities will get completed.

"You may have volunteers who can do that, but you may not have them who are willing to do it for years and years," Gronbjerg said.

If the museum is able to build an indoor facility, Hall said, he could see having 20 to 25 people on the payroll.

"We're always having trouble attracting volunteers," he said. "If the expansion program works, then at that point we will look into having paid staff."

Although an indoor museum is on the drawing board, the specifics still need to be determined. He's not even sure where it would be located.

Plans to connect ITM's rail line with Union Station could provide enough of a revenue boost to help with the building project, if it attracts leisure passengers traveling to and from Hamilton County.

Dinner train passenger Larry Vaughn, 63, is familiar with the museum from the state FairTrain; he said its expansion goal is a worthy one.

"It is important to stay in touch with the past and the train has played a role in personal transportation and shipping goods," the Fishers resident said. "There's still a place for it here, especially with the increasing cost of fuel."

Rolling ahead with ideas

The museum hired Indianapolis-based eGlobal Consulting Inc. to determine how to best implement ITM's ideas. The company has met with board members to get a feel for their short- and long-term plans, said founder Jynell Berkshire.

"Now we're on phase two where we're starting to look at the next step to move the organization forward," she said. "We're getting community input, determining what areas need to be looked at to ... [let] the Indiana community and other states know that ITM exists."

Its goal is to have all the data, objectives, strategies and recommendations finished by the end of the summer, Berkshire said.

ITM's expansion plans would not be possible without the great job the volunteers have done over the years, Myers said. And there's no stopping now.

"I need to stress that to be economically viable, these wonderful people need to keep doing what they're doing," she said. "Some have a knowledge base you can't buy on the market, so we need to continue training people who are willing to learn those kinds of things. Most are railroaders by passion, not by trade, and they love the history and making things go. ... We'd like to have a support system and infrastructure so they can do what they do best, and that's running trains."

The marketing money will be critical to helping ITM reach its destination, said John Herbst, CEO of the Indiana Historical Society and former leader of the Indiana State Museum and Conner Prairie.

Museum attendance nationwide has been declining for about 30 years, he said, but it is difficult for Indiana institutions to market themselves given the state's paltry funding for tourism.

"It costs so much more money to do than ever before because people are so bombarded with marketing efforts," he said. "The smaller and more local the historical organization it is, the more challenging it's going to be to have dollars to spend on marketing."

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