The little town that could

Reprinted with permission:

The Little Town That Could
By Mark C. Perri

(April 20, 2009 – Owosso, MI) Owosso, Michigan, population 15,159, exists in relative obscurity at the crossroads of State Highways M-21 and M-52. About an hour’s drive northwest of the college town of Ann Arbor, and the Detroit metropolitan area, it is situated in a triangle roughly comprised of Flint, Lansing and Saginaw. Like these larger towns, its history, its manufacturing base, and its prosperity had been inextricably linked to manufacturing, and the automotive industry.

Owosso’s fortunes had always been bolstered by its transportation links, with the Shiawassee River meandering gently through town, and five railroad lines radiating from its center. Not unlike many other rural towns, Owosso has struggled to maintain a vibrant and prosperous downtown. With today’s double-digit unemployment, decreased personal spending, and a general lack of confidence in the economy, many towns, businesses and citizens have delayed or cancelled events. Our country’s recession, which has hit states like Michigan especially hard, may be the death knell of economic viability for many struggling cities.

In spite of the dismal economic climate, this summer, on a showcase weekend of July 23-26, Owosso has rallied around the local Steam Railroading Institute to support an unprecedented gathering of steam locomotives in a grand, family-centered railroad exposition. Like the fabled “Little Engine That Could,” Trainfestival2009 will be the centerpiece attraction of Owosso, “The Little Town That Could.”

The Steam Railroad Institute is a non-profit group that, according to Executive Director T.J. Gaffney, provides a “living history experience” of steam-powered locomotion and railroading. Including the museum, SRI occupies 7 acres of the former Ann Arbor Railroad yard in downtown Owosso. For the past 26 years, primarily through the generosity of thousands of volunteer hours and donations, SRI has improved the property with the installation of a turntable, a visitor’s center, and a shop building…all in support of the facility’s star attraction, ex-Pere Marquette steam locomotive no. 1225.

The 1225 is one of perhaps a dozen locomotives of its size that regularly operates in North America. It is most famous for being the locomotive depicted in the popular “Polar Express” movie, and each winter, on SRI’s “North Pole Express” excursions, escorts thousands of children and believers of all ages on an adventure reminescent of the fabled “Polar Express”.

While revenues from those excursions, and other various trips and charters throughout the year help with upkeep and expenses, no. 1225 is reaching the point where it needs a federally-mandated, “15-year” overhaul to its boiler. The staggering amounts needed to replace boiler tubes, flues, and the necessary inspections will run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mr. Gaffney has been Executive Director of SRI for 3 years, and together with Chief Mechanical Officer Greg Udolph, was involved in a similar railroad exposition in Ohio in 2004. The response there was overwhelming, so the thought was, “why not here”? With that in mind, Trainfestival2009 was born, albeit with a much greater emphasis on operating steam locomotives and excursions. In fact, there will be three large steam locomotives the size of no.1225, and at least five smaller locomotives…all in living, breathing, steam.

Brent Morgan is the Director of Owosso’s Downtown Development Authority, an entity that strives to help businesses navigate the often perilous paths necessary to develop and prosper in tough economic times. “A city’s downtown is its character, its soul,” says Morgan, who has in the past helped SRI attract grants and funding. Now it’s SRI’s turn, with Trainfestival2009, to provide the “engine” for downtown prosperity. Says Morgan, “We are expecting over 30,000 visitors, with an economic impact of 8 million dollars.”

Indeed, Trainfestival2009 may be helping to launch Owosso’s own economic stimulus plan. Already, John Lowman, the owner of the Wrought Iron Grill, has planned a weekend-long “Owosso Beer & Blues Festival” to coincide with Trainfestival 2009. “The town is abuzz,” says Loman, who is adding 100 outdoor tables on Saturday, with the full cooperation of the city, which has agreed to close a side street. Lowman adds, “Our festival will be trackside, with entertainment and dining. As a citizen, and as a businessman, this event (Trainfestival2009 ) is just what the city needs to give it a lift.”

Local hotels are already booked, and college dorms that normally sit empty all summer have been rented for the many volunteers and staffers that will be needed for the event.

Both railroad hobbyists and members of the industry are abuzz with plans to bring ex-Southern Pacific Daylight steam locomotive no. 4449 all the way from Portland, Oregon, with a train of fully restored, classic private rail cars, on a 2,500+ mile odyssey to Owosso. Often regarded as “the most beautiful steam locomotive in the world,” she is colorful, streamlined, art-deco styled, and built for hauling passenger trains at high speeds.

Constructed in 1941 in Lima, Ohio, it will be a homecoming of sorts for the locomotive, and for its caretaker, Doyle McCormack, who grew up in Conneaut, Ohio. McCormack is “looking forward to the first trip east of Chicago,” (with no. 4449), and adds that, “We were a part of the big railroad festivals in California, and it will be interesting to see what these guys in the East can do.” Trainfestival 2009 is shaping up to be the largest exposition of steam railroading since the California Railfair in 1999. Jim Wrinn is the editor of Trains magazine, a national publication that covers the railroad industry and hobby. Says Wrinn, himself a qualified steam-locomotive fireman, “Trainfestival is the first significant gathering of operating steam locomotives in the United States in ten years. As difficult as it is to maintain and operate vintage locomotives today, this will certainly be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see eight of the magnificent steam locomotives that helped make America great.”

Prestige Creative Marketing of New Philadelphia, Ohio, has been facilitating this event for SRI. Prestige uses cutting edge web-based ticketing, marketing, and tracking for ticket sales. Already, a comprehensive view of the nationwide, and indeed worldwide, impact of this event is taking shape. Jason Johnson, president of Prestige, indicated that inquiries have come from such diverse countries as Australia and Russia. Already booked are thousands of dollars of sales from Great Britain, long known for its concentration of railroad preservation enthusiasts.

As for stateside reach, Johnson says, “We haven’t logged paid attendance from all fifty states yet, but we are getting close. We expect all of the day-long excursions behind the big steam locomotives to be sold out well before the festival opens its doors. Tickets for these trips are very hot right now.”

While the immediate impact of Trainfestival2009 will be felt for one long weekend in July, the groundwork is being laid for more permanent improvements at SRI. A two thousand-foot-long miniature railroad, complete with a family-friendly picnic area, is being installed on the grounds, providing an impetus to clean up an old storage area, and create a permanent attraction for families who visit the SRI facility on weekends. Other infrastructure improvements, including parking and passenger boarding areas, will facilitate future events and a more extensive excursion schedule.

Owosso, Michigan…crossroads of M-21 and M-52. The drive, determination and cooperation of a small town, its leaders, its volunteers and its steam locomotive are helping Owosso navigate another economic crossroads, securing their future by honoring their past.

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