PARRISH — “Florida Railroad Experience” says it all.
What if the Florida Railroad Museum, with its massive collection of full-size rolling stock — locomotives, sleeper cars, box cars and cabooses — and RealRail with its scale models, were under one roof?
A 25,000-square-foot roof to be precise, designed to resemble an old-fashioned train depot with ticket area, interactive displays, library, classroom and boarding for train rides to an 80-year-old ghost town named Willow.
And many of the pieces are already in place, say members of the Parrish Civic Association, Parrish Foundation, RealRail and the Florida Railroad Museum. It’s a matter of pulling it all together by raising several million dollars to acquire 11 acres near the present site of the Florida Railroad Museum and the old Parrish post office on 82nd Street East and U.S. 301, then build the structure.
It has the potential to attract families from far and near to an educational, interactive attraction that not only looks at Florida’s railroading history, but its future as well.
Parrish residents want to see a walkable community with lots of shops, says Ben Jordan, president of the Parrish Civic Association.
But that won’t happen with more residential rooftops alone.
The Florida Railroad Experience would make Parrish a destination, Jordan predicts, and encourage the development of new businesses to serve visitors and residents alike.
Through a facilitator from the Sarasota Community Foundation, the Florida Railroad Museum and RealRail determined that they could work together to help create Florida Railroad Experience.
A board has been formed, $10,000 raised, work has started on forming a nonprofit corporation, and a website launched, Jordan said. Architect Jerry Zoller has drawn up plans for the way that the Experience might look.
“There are few other facilities in the United States with a working railroad and a working museum. We will be one of the few in the world,” Jordan said.
Currently, the Florida Railroad Museum and RealRail operate only on weekends. Florida Railroad Experience could be open five or six days a week, year-round.
George Johnson, president of RealRail, which operates from interim space at 6804 14th St. W., Bradenton, said his group has been part of the fabric of the Manatee-Sarasota community for 35 years.
“We had talked to the Florida Railroad Museum. They run the big stuff. We always said wouldn’t it be great to get us together? Then Ben came along with the Parrish Civic Association. They saw an opportunity and so did we,” Johnson said.
“Florida was built by the railroads. This is how Bradenton and Sarasota came to be,” Johnson said, pointing to the role that the Henry Plants and the Henry Flaglers had in developing the east and west coasts of Florida.
“They contributed so much to what we are today,” Johnson said.
Early rail not only helped open up wild country, but it helped get local goods to market, such as crops, timber and turpentine products.
Gene Hughey, president of the Florida Railroad Museum, is among those working behind the scenes for the better part of the past year to develop plans for Florida Railroad Experience.
“It’s a very exciting concept. It has the potential for being great for all concerned,” Hughey said.
RealRail is now in a 3,000-square-foot facility with its models — O scale - 1/48 scale, N scale - 1/60 scale, and HO - 1/87 scale, the most popular.
In a larger venue, RealRail could do more. Visitors could buy a rail pass that would allow them to operate the scale models and to ride the train to Willow.
Brynne Anne Besio, executive director of the South Florida Museum, in Bradenton, said Florida Railroad Experience would “present a wonderful opportunity for the museum to collaborate with programming and exhibit development.”
Rail played an important role in the history of Manatee County, but the museum has not played a significant role in presenting the history of rail, she said.
“We go from canoes to cars. It’s like the missing piece. The rail history was a demarcation,” Besio said.
Glenn Miley, superintendent of mechanical and track for the Florida Railroad Museum, who is responsible for the maintenance of 48 full-size cars and locomotives, thinks Florida Railroad Experience is a great idea.
He recalls that when Thomas the Tank Engine was in Parrish a few years ago, it drew 16,000 visitors over one weekend, offering a glimpse of what a big draw rail could be.
Routinely, Florida Railroad Museum draws about 30,000 visitors a year, largely through the efforts of volunteers. Everyone agrees that with more money, facilities and staff it has the potential to be much more.
One of the cars awaiting restoration on the tracks at Willow is a 64-seat coach built in 1954 that could become a dining car, allowing riders to sit and eat as they watched East Manatee roll by, says Jordan.
He also envisions the possible relocation of some of Parrish’s grand old houses to the railroad property, to see new life as ice cream or craft shops.
But while the Experience undoubtedly would look back, it would also look forward.
“Rail is coming back, especially with freight,” Jordan said, adding that for the tonnage moved, freight is an efficient and green technology.
Jordan would also like to see a model of the light rail proposed for central Florida installed at the Experience, and to have interactive simulators that visitors could use to move cargo and train cars around.
“It’s just too good of an idea not to happen. We’ll raise the money,” Jordan said.
Hughey said the cooperation of the Chin family, which owns the property where Florida Railroad Experience is proposed, and Jordan have been key players in the project. “Without those two, this would never stand a chance,” he said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.