Evolution of a master plan: while the Railroad Hall of Fame's details are in flux, the ambitious fund raising goal persists


by Mike Kroll


The board of the National Railroad Hall of Fame made big local news back in March when they announced a much more ambitious project than anyone ever conceived. They were aiming for the sky with a $60 million goal and a plan to raise this money largely through donations from the six major remaining railroads in America. Now four months later their goal remains largely unchanged but they are now looking toward a substantial commitment from local taxpayers to prime the fund raising pump.

It has been almost 12 years since Bob Bondi and a small group of his friends and business associates hatched the idea to establish a Railroad Hall of Fame in Galesburg. Bondi's original vision took a while to gain steam, and believers locally and Bondi himself understood that official recognition and credibility would be keys to the project's success. Bondi devoted much of his effort toward obtaining an official Congressional Charter for the Hall of Fame, what turned out to be a significant political feat. That feat was accomplished in April 2004 when the U.S. Senate concurred with a House of Representatives resolution passed six months earlier.

What no one knew at the time, including Bondi, was that his modest goal was to become a $60 million dream, with the unveiling this past spring of a conceptual plan for an 84,500 square foot building devoted largely to multimedia presentations honoring the key figures in American railroading. The fledgling Hall of Fame had already inducted its first few classes of honorees, totaling 13 to date, but has never had a home despite early attempts to partner with the long-established Galesburg Railroad Museum.

The Galesburg community as a whole was taken by surprise at just how ambitious the dream had become. In 2005 a new board for the Hall of Fame was formed and Bondi stepped back into the shadows (as the founder/president emeritus) as Jay Matson assumed the chairmanship. The new board is guided less by a pure love of railroading and more by the potential tourism and commercial benefits that might be gained through a successful project of this kind.

Peter LaPaglia, principal of LaPaglia and Associates (a museum planning firm), was hired by the new board to develop the master plan, and he convinced the new board to begin thinking big, really big. Originally Bondi and most local observers expected the Hall of Fame to be a dignified but relatively modest project and located either near downtown or at least adjacent to some of Galesburg's ubiquitous train tracks. Instead, the Galesburg City Council agreed this past March to donate a portion of Kiwanis Park to the project. This site was chosen due to its proximity to I-74, even though it will not permit direct viewing of the multitude of live trains traversing town.

While museums typically gather memorabilia and artifacts that illustrate history, the Hall of Fame's goal is different. It will honor the personal contributions of men and women who have been instrumental in the development of railroading in America. As currently conceived, the emphasis will not be on accumulating old railroading “stuff” but rather on developing multimedia presentations that tell the story of American railroading by highlighting its key human figures.

“We want to model ourselves after the hugely successful Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield,” explained Dennis Morrison, retired president of Wells Fargo Bank in Galesburg and now the executive director of the Hall of Fame. Morrison was lured back to Galesburg from his Florida retirement to steer local planning and fund raising efforts. He admits to being a novice at heading an historical site or museum but he points to years of experience as a local community board member and fund raiser.

“Hell, all of the current board is made up of community boosters and railroad fans who are learning as we go along. LaPaglia was instrumental in moving us to our current vision. I remember when we first met with him and he showed us some ideas with a price tag of between $12-15 million and we couldn't envision a project that ambitious. Now look where we are! The more we discussed the project with LaPaglia, the more convinced we became that we really wanted to do this on a world class level. He told us of other similar projects that began modestly with hopes to grow over time; most of those have either failed or simply stayed small. Our board didn't want that to happen to us.”

LaPaglia's firm is charging somewhere between $250–300,000 for development of the master plan. That plan, by the way, is still in process. Begun in January 2005, it should be finished by summer's end, and much of the early fund raising has been devoted to paying the consultant's fees. LaPaglia has already produced a museum concept plan including floor plans and an exterior elevation reminiscent of a grand railway station of eras past. Once Galesburg could proudly boast of such a magnificent passenger station, before it was demolished in the dark of night during the 1970s by the Burlington Northern railroad, intent on eliminating a costly-to-maintain relic.

“Our feedback on that exterior design has been just great,” noted Morrison. “While time will tell just how much the interior of the facility changes to accommodate tweaks to the design, I am pretty sure we will do our best to maintain that exterior look. Our group sees this as a wonderful economic development opportunity for Galesburg. This project is no longer just a pipe-dream of eight local guys who love trains. We are now talking about a big business opportunity for the community. We want to see 200,000–300,000 visitors come to the Hall of Fame and spend their money in the Galesburg economy. There is no reason we can't be as successful as the Baseball or Football Halls of Fame if we do this right.”

“It is already clear to us that we will never be a collection of artifacts. We want to tell the story of American railroads rather than attempt to preserve the past. Look at the fantastic success of the Lincoln Museum in Springfield. They have exceeded all expectations, and we want to follow their lead in bringing a 21st century approach to the project. It quickly became clear to us that we could never be as successful if we took the more traditional approach. I must admit we have learned an awful lot in a short period of time working with [LaPaglia].”

At their March press conference Matson said that the goal for Galesburg community fund raising was $500,000, with half of that to pay LaPaglia's fee and the rest to cover organizational and fund raising expenses. The bulk of the money needed to complete the project, $60 million, was to come from corporate donations and federal or state grants. The largest remaining railroads were key to raising the necessary funds, followed closely by affiliated corporations. Back in March everyone was extremely optimistic, but important lessons have been learned in four months.

“It took us a while to get organized and begin successful fund raising,” explained Morrison. “I am totally pleased by the local community response, and that's important because our fund raising strategy is different from what we anticipated back in March. We have learned that it is important to show a strong community commitment to this project before we can make a convincing case to the railroads. The railroads were originally the first stage of fund raising but are now targeted for the last stage (said the former Wells Fargo banker, unaware of his pun). Now we are shooting for a local contribution of $1–1.5 million rather than a half million. That's a lot of money but certainly doable.”

The local fund raising is well underway in two parallel efforts. A grassroots campaign in the form of media ads requesting donations from individuals and, more importantly, a direct appeal to wealthy individuals and businesses in the immediate area for larger financial commitments. As of last week the newspaper ad had already prompted $49,600 in cash according to Morrison, and the total raised in a combination of cash and pledges currently stands at about $500,000. Additionally, Morrison says the Hall of Fame will be looking toward a financial commitment from the City of Galesburg and perhaps even Knox County in the form or tax support for the project. This would be in real dollars on top of the donated land and infrastructure assistance the City has already committed toward the project.

“We aren't looking for sales or property tax money,” said Morrison. “We are hoping that a Hotel/Motel tax or some other kind of tax or fee that would be paid largely by visitors to the community could contribute millions toward our goal over the next few years. We are anticipating at least $10 million in state or federal money, and combined with a strong local commitment this should put us in a stronger position to seek money from the railroads. However, timing is very important. The biggest risk of delay in getting sufficient funding commitments is the possibility of a cash flow crunch here at the front end as we complete the project planning stages. We really need to get the money flowing in at this early stage to keep on our timeline. We are really coming up to a crucial time here.”

Morrison and his board see this as an investment in Galesburg's future. “We visited with the Springfield mayor and he told us what an asset the Lincoln Library has already been for his community. He says the payoff was almost immediate for Springfield. Our board is looking at a long road ahead and we may well take more than the four years sketched out on our timeline, but I am confident that this Hall of Fame will be a reality soon enough and the Galesburg economy will be rewarded for its upfront commitment and faith in this project.”