Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Deals for station go off the rails

Town wonders what it has to do to acquire abandoned property

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MINNEDOSA -- In 2005, CP Rail's Holiday Train, that travels across the country at Christmas time entertaining small towns, stopped here and made a surprise announcement.

Railway officials told the shivering crowd, chuffing out frost vapour like the smoke stacks on old steam engines, CP was giving its historic train station to the community for $1.

The community, which had been trying to acquire the station as a heritage site for several years, was overjoyed. What a gracious and magnanimous act by the railway, everyone said. What a "good corporate citizen," people said. Even farmers shook their heads and said maybe they shouldn't have uttered those bad words about the railway, going back as far as 1883, when the rail line was first built here.

So volunteers in Minnedosa, population 2,500, went to work repairing the windows, replacing the roof, reconditioning the doors and soffits. They put in $100,000 in materials and volunteer labour, then went back to CP and said they were ready to do the interior.

You want to do what? CP replied. Oh, ha ha, you mean you haven't heard? There was new corporate management in place and it had a new philosophy. And that philosophy didn't include handing over abandoned train stations for $1.

That was in 2009. No paperwork had ever been signed to hand over the station for $1. Contacted by the Free Press, CP declined an opportunity to comment on the town's version of events.

What then, the town's heritage committee asked, did CP want for the old train station?

In 2011, CP Rail finally replied it would lease the building to the heritage committee for an annual charitable receipt of $1,500, and if the heritage group built a fence around the station (costing about $5,000), and if it agreed to 24 clauses, many of them concerning insurance and liability.

The local committee went back to town council and worked through the legalities. Last winter, it told CP it was ready to sign the agreement.

Er, said CP.

The deal was off the table again. CP now wanted to sell the building for fair market value. The committee believes CP wants up to $70,000 for the building. This is after CP originally tried to sell the station in 2000 and received no offers.

The heritage committee in the town 200 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, on the Yellowhead Highway, has countered with the original deal to take the station off CP's hands for $1, taking into consideration all the work and expense the community has already put into it. A tourist information centre would be set up in the station. CP promised to reply by August but the town still hasn't heard back.

Minnedosa is "kind of a railway-themed town," said Brion Pollon, a town councillor and part of the heritage committee. CP once employed nearly 300 people here in the 1950s, Pollon said. But CP closed the station in 1960 when it switched to diesel engines, laying off hundreds of workers and triggering an economic crisis. The train station, built in 1910, was only used for administrative purposes after 1960 until it was shuttered for good in 2000.

The one-and-a-half storey train station is a beautiful piece of architecture. It's generously windowed, with striking dormers and a red brick finish and limestone foundation. "The exteriors (of the old train stations) were works of art but the interiors were workaday," said Pollon.

He said it's common for railways to give favourable terms to small-town heritage groups wanting to take over closed stations. The former CN station in Neepawa is now a museum, as is the former CN station in Miami. The former CP station in Virden is a community development office. Dauphin has transformed its former CN station into a spectacular office space and rail museum.

"I don't understand the problem," said Pollon. "CP's done this all over the place (turned stations over to communities). They had it up for sale. There were no takers. What's the big deal? It's going to be suddenly worth millions of dollars?"

The ownership issue may be cleared up soon, however. While CP wouldn't comment on negotiations, it did issue a statement to the Free Press. "CP... is in the process of finalizing a contract for the sale of the heritage railway station to (the heritage group). The contract is expected to be delivered within the next month," it said.

Where has the town heard that one before?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 A18

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