(La Porte, IN) - The City of La Porte is challenging Norfolk Southern Railroad over its decision to take back a historic downtown train depot restored with $3.6 million in tax dollars.
Mayor Tom Dermody is leading an effort reaching as high as Washington D.C. to try and force the major carrier of freight to return it to the community.
“We’re going every angle possible to protect these depot buildings for our community and sending a message that you can’t push the little guy around. We’re not going to stand for it,” Dermody said.
Using local, state, and federal monies, the city completed the restoration of the two historic depot buildings in 2009.
The dilapidated buildings were slated for demolition when the city acquired rights to the property then owned by Conrail for $1 annually under a 20-year lease entered into with the railroad before the restoration, said Bert Cook, Executive Director of the LaPorte Economic Advancement Partnership.
The lease remained in effect after Norfolk Southern later acquired the railroad. However, Norfolk Southern decided not to extend the lease and reclaimed property ownership once the agreement expired on December 31.
“We’re just incredibly disappointed. They ought to be ashamed of themselves,” Cook said.
Initially, Dermody said the intent was for ownership of the depot to transfer to the city at the end of the lease. The depot was occupied by the LaPorte Economic Advancement Partnership and several non-profit organizations when Norfolk Southern evicted them.
The restored facility was also where Santa Claus visited with children after being ushered into the city every year in a parade. In addition, the once-bustling structures when the rail line had passenger service decades ago were a source of pride in a community deeply involved in historic preservation.
“I think those depot buildings were a major asset for everyone in the city. They were kind of a shining star of what historic restoration can do for your community,” Dermody said.
LEAP is now located in a nearby building it acquired for $250,000 at 605 Michigan Avenue.
According to Cook, the appraised value of the depot has risen from $89,000 before the restoration to $500,000 currently. LEAP offered the railroad as much as $300,000 for the structures during 18 months of negotiations before the lease expired.
Dermody said talks have already occurred with Congresswoman Jackie Walorski and the National Transportation Safety Board members about the use of the facility being returned to the city.
He said contact has also been made with former Indiana governor and current president of Purdue University Mitch Daniels, a member of the board of directors for Norfolk Southern Corporation.
Cook said it’s unsettling not knowing what the future holds for the old depot, which sits empty.
“As I understand it, they’re going to try and sell the buildings at some point,” Cook said.
Dermody said the depot would be discussed with local, state, and federal officials next month. It’ll be brought up during a meeting primarily about trains recently stopping more frequently in front of railroad crossings here and in surrounding communities.
Dermody said representatives from the railroad are expected to be in attendance.
“They got enough business to do. They shouldn’t be worried about two depot buildings that the city of LaPorte has fixed up, repaired, and made it look like it does today. This is a fight that needs to be taken on by the city,” Dermody said.