Polar Express Prepares for Holiday Fundraiser With Confusion on 2017 Exit

A Young Visitor With Santa Claus During SantaFest 1 Years Ago.

A Young Lady Meets Santa Claus During SantaFest 1 – Years Ago.

Executive Director Donnie Carroll at his Narrow Gauge Office at 58 Fore Street.

Executive Director Donnie Carroll at his Maine Narrow Gauge Museum & Railroad Office at 58 Fore Street.

Carol McCracken  (Post # 2,476)

Elves at the Maine Narrow Gauge Museum & Railroad are busy preparing for the annual Polar Express fundraiser – an event that has been part of the holidays on Munjoy Hill ever since the mini-railroad arrived on the Portland waterfront in the early 90s. Working in a “restricted” area of the Museum, elves are busy building a new display for riders to enjoy at the end of the make-believe journey based on the popular book of the same name.

Although it has been called WinterFest, Santa Fest, or whatever, it is the major fundraiser for the railroad that has always struggled financially to stay on track. For a few years, the Portland Rotary Club, worked with the mini-railroad  to host a holiday bonanza. But the work of decorating the Trail along the rail line got too physically challenging and the profits too slim for Rotarians  to continue in that dual capacity.  After that, the two-footers went at it alone – on their own.  Decorating the Trail with many thousands of  colored lights on animated figures ended forever.  The good news according to Donnie Carroll, executive director, recently is that sales for this year’s Polar Express journey are up significantly.  Why?  Carroll doesn’t speculate.

In the early 90s, Phin Sprague, Jr., and a group of railfans purchased the former Edaville Railroad in South Carver, Massachusetts, near Cape Cod.  It had once been a major holiday spectacular  for people all over the northeast who brought their children for a ride through the 1,200 acre Ocean Spray cranberry bogs decorated with colored lights and animated figures.  It was a tradition that generations enjoyed and many were reluctant to give up when it came time to do so in the early 1990s.

Due to a family dispute, the popular amusement park came up for sale.  As visitors to the cranberry bogs, the Sprague family, Cape Elizabeth, and railfans including the deceased Erv Bickford, Yarmouth, transported the rail cars in a huge convey of antique trucks – all done by volunteers in a carefully planned move that took months to plan and carry out – with hundreds of volunteers doing the heaving lifting. There was even a special vehicle traveling in the parade, a/k/a  the Great Train Robbery, carrying spare parts for the antique trucks should there be a truck breakdown.  It was not needed!  It was always the intention of the volunteers to have a holiday presence on Munjoy Hill for the pleasure of children from all over the area. That has worked.

Fast forward. Times changed.  Leaders at the railroad learned a few years ago that Sprague was actively trying to sell his 9 + acres of valuable waterfront property at 58 Fore Street, former home of Portland Yacht Services.  Brian Durham, then Executive Director at the railroad put out RFPs to move all the equipment to another location in Maine.  Response was poor.  The new location also had to pay for the move; there was one interested party.  But it couldn’t finance the move.  The effort failed.

Two years ago, Sprague famously sold the property to Jim Brady and CPB2 LLC, to redevelop. Brady initially give Carroll until sometime in 2017 to relocate the two-footers. The volunteers decided on Gray – in the dense woods behind a  shopping center.  (The shopping center is owned by Dan Craffey, who owns two other shopping centers and formerly owned Moose Landing Marina. He’s been described as an “empire builder” by those who know him.) A railroad had once run there, although not the narrow gauge. New track would need to be laid, whereas the narrow gauge track in Portland was laid exclusively by volunteers.  Carroll has several challenges here.  One challenge he inherited from previous directors was an unchecked crippling culture of power struggles among the volunteers. His job remains to tame the herd of cats he directs. Volunteers often have their talons poised to attack anyone who threatens their turf. It’s the Stuff of Legends! The other challenge for the amiable Carroll, a  Gray resident and former state legislator, has been to find the $10 million needed to transport all that railroad equipment to Gray.  At first Carroll looked to Maine’s US congressional delegation to find the federal money;.  No luck there he says.  Now he is looking for grant money – no luck so far, but he continues to search doggedly.  This month he’s meeting with Craffey. He’s also meeting with a possible funder this month. That is the ongoing Plan A Carroll is pursuing.

What will happen if Carroll is unable to secure $10 million in funding to move the two-footers to Gray by February of  2017?   Is there a Plan B?  Other sources familiar with the lease agreement say that the deadline is flexible; It could be extended beyond February of  2017, if both parties want that to happen.

Those sources say there is a Plan B. Carroll says “no comment at this time”  Perhaps Dan Caffey is the sugar daddy for the Maine Narrow Gauge Museum & Railroad.