The persistence of city officials and members of the local Depot Redux group has paid off.
A $1.5 million federal grant will allow the city to take ownership of the Santa Fe Railway depot in East Lawrence and give the building the major makeover supporters had hoped for. The grant will pay about 80 percent of the project, with the city contributing about $300,000. According to Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard, the money will be sufficient to give the building a new roof and heating and cooling systems and make repairs to masonry, sidewalks and parking areas.
It will be a fresh start for the 1950s-era building that had fallen into serious disrepair before Depot Redux began advocating for the structure. Amtrak has spent about $1.5 million in the last two years to improve the boarding platform that continues to serve rail passengers twice a day when the Southwest Chief makes its regular stops in Lawrence. In recent years, local volunteers also invested considerable sweat equity in cleaning up the depot, planting flowers and making other improvements.
Some hurdles remain. The next step for the city is to complete a deal to take over the ownership of the depot from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which has indicated it would be willing to donate the building as long as it retained ownership of the land and maintained its offices in the eastern part of the building. There also is a question of who would assume liability for any environmental hazards that are found on the property.
The federal grant is a big windfall for the depot project, but the city needs to be smart as it moves forward on financial arrangements for this project. Even if Amtrak basically donates the building, the fact that it will continue to use the depot for offices and passengers, means that it also should share in the cost of routine maintenance, utilities and other ongoing costs.
It also would be great to see the building serve a meaningful purpose beyond accommodating Amtrak passengers twice a day. Amtrak’s desire to retain office space in the building means the city will control only the lobby, the old ticket window office and another smaller office. The space limitations also limit the potential uses, but city officials say they are open to suggestions, so local residents should put on their thinking caps to see what creative uses they can find. The new Cider Gallery is only a couple of blocks away. Any inspiration there?
The Santa Fe Depot may not inspire a lot of history buffs, but it is a significant building of its period as well as the first structure rail passengers see when they arrive in Lawrence. It will be nice to see it get a long-overdue facelift.