The city of Brainerd is getting behind Rhythm of the Rails' proposal to create a railroad theme park in "the hole" across Highway 210 from Franklin Junior High School.
The city council Monday unanimously approved having city staffers set up a meeting with representatives from Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which owns "the hole" site, to negotiate buying the land. Rhythm of the Rails would in turn buy the property from the city.
In its eighth season, Rhythm of the Rails, a non-profit organization, currently is located on Front Street, near the intersection with South Fourth Street. However, because of Crow Wing County's building expansion plan, Rhythm of the Rails will have to find a new home.
Jody Crowe, producer of Rhythm of the Rails, said "the hole" has piqued his interest for many years.
Crowe told the council he envisions the theme park as a summer destination site for families, with amusement rides, stage shows for children during the day, evening dinners and shows similar to western chuck wagon shows, performance artists and musicians and a rubber-tired train for people to ride. The spot, said Crowe, offers a natural amphitheater for shows.
"We want to celebrate the fact that for years that hole was vital for the community," Crowe told the city council. "We'd like to bring it back as a hub in the city."
Crowe said he has been in contact with the family of Roger Awsumb, who for years portrayed Casey Jones on KARE-11 television, for a celebration of the performer at the theme park. Crowe also proposed an annual re-enactment of Baby Face Nelson's 1933 robbery of the First National Bank in Brainerd as a fund-raiser for the Crow Wing County Historical Society.
The tough sell will be to the railroad. Dan Vogt, Brainerd city administrator, said in the past BNSF has indicated it is not interested in selling that piece of land for that use. Because of that council member Mary Koep suggested a face-to-face meeting with railroad officials, instead of just a phone call inquiring about "the hole."
"I think we can be successful in those negotiations with the railroad once we can impress upon them how beneficial it will be to them in keeping railroad history alive to generations to come," said Koep. "I think this is a wonderful, wonderful idea ... but we need to make the call, have an appointment, go up there, have a presentation ready and maybe come home with some very good news."
The city council also directed the Planning Commission to consider a zoning change for "the hole" from industrial to general business.
The land, about 6 1/2 acres of undeveloped green space with trees, grass and occasional deer, is flanked by Washington Street and 13th Street Southeast. The deepest center of the bowl is about 30 feet below the street level.
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