With a new season underway at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, local officials, leaders and residents are still working on a plan to keep the gates open beyond July 1.
Despite some rainy weather, Railtown Park Superintendent Kim Baker said opening weekend went well, with enough visitors on Sunday to add an extra train run. Baker and other state officials also expressed some optimism that local community efforts to help fund park operations can ultimately get the state park off a list of 70 set to close due to budget cuts.
“We’re hoping all these different efforts will culminate” with a successful plan, Baker said on Monday. “If we can find some way to keep it open in some capacity, will be a better value for the taxpayers.”
Railtown’s season traditionally runs every weekend from the first weekend in April through the end of October. Baker said April is typically a busy month with locals and out-of-towners, as the spring season brings school breaks and wildflowers to the Mother Lode.
This year’s opening weekend wasn’t as busy as last year, as a rain storm on Saturday “put a damper” on the goings on. But Baker said they still “had a lot of wet visitors,” and the park will host events every weekend this month to keep things busy.
Baker said park officials are also finishing up an investigation into an incident of vandalism in March that resulted in 26 broken windows in a parktrain car. The windows were almost all repaired by Monday, and Baker said the repairs cost about $3,100.
Baker said park officials identified two teenage suspects and are turning the information over to the county District Attorney’s Office. She didn’t release the names of the youths because of their age.
This season could be cut short on July 1 due to a proposal by the state to close the park indefinitely to save costs. The state Department of Parks and Recreation proposed closing 70 parks on July 1 as an effort to cut $30 million out of the budget.
However, Tuolumne County is putting a measure on the June 5 ballot to expand a tourism tax local officials hope will raise $200,000 a year for the park on a temporary basis. Five local Rotary clubs are also teaming up to organize multiple fundraisers for Railtown.
“So many community members are stepping up,” Baker said.
Tuolumne County is one of 24 communities currently working with park officials to come up with an alternative plan to keep their state park. California State Parks spokesman Roy Stearn said on Monday 11 other parks have agreements in place that will keep them open beyond July 1. The state has also released requests for proposals in an attempt to find private concessionaires to run 10 additional parks, according to the department.
Stearn said the parks which do remain open will operate completely under the alternative funding plans.
“This comes with zero funding from the state,” Stearn said.
The Railtown proposal is unique in that it will depend largely on a vote from the public. Voters will be asked in June to expand the county’s 10-percent Transient Occupancy Tax to include privately-run campgrounds, RV camps and houseboats.
If it passes, county officials have estimated the tax could raise as much as $350,000 in additional funds a year. The money raised by the TOT tax can be spent at the county Board of Supervisors’ discretion, and the ballot language will not mention how it would be used. But supervisors have publicly stated they want to use the money to keep Railtown and the Mother Lode Fairgrounds running at some capacity.
County officials have also said the tax alone cannot keep the park running. The local Rotary clubs are organizing three fundraisers in the coming months to help supplement the tax funds: a raffle for a Corvette, the annual Celebrities Serving Dinner and a special event on June 9 at the park.
Stearn praised communities like Tuolumne County that are working to keep the parks operating, and he said the department is “very hopeful” trains will continue to run at railtown in the future.
“We could not be more pleased with the response from the supervisors and the community,” Stearn said.
An old park advocate is also throwing fervent support behind saving Railtown. Bruce Cassasa has been writing letters to both state and federal lawmakers to get the park off the closure list, and said he plans on coming back to Tuolumne County soon to push the agenda.
Cassasa was a driving force behind Railtown becoming a park in the first place, as he lobbied hard from a federal prison — where he was serving time for bank robbery — to preserve the historic station.
Cassasa is writing a letter a day from his home in Wyoming, and he said that he’s as fired up now as he was in the late 1970s and early 1980s during the initial campaign. He believes enough pressure can force the state to put funding back into the park, and he has a goal of organizing a petition and possible taking legal action.
“I’m on a war footing,” said Cassasa, 73.