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The Shopper

The Shopper

Friday, November 16, 2012 8:09 PM

Photo by Matt Bristow/The Ottawa Herald

Ira Schreiber, Aurora, Colo., signals to the train engineer to stop Friday after connecting one of the dinner train cars at the Midland Depot, 1515 High St., Baldwin City. Schreiber is one of the co-owners of a new dinner train venture coming to the area.

Train rolling toward dinner time

By BOBBY BURCH, Herald Staff Writer

BALDWIN CITY — Donning a white hard-hat, Ira Schreiber saunters alongside a 122-foot passenger car rolling into Baldwin City’s Midland Railway with his arms outstretched, mimicking an airplane.

“It means I’m coming in for a landing,” Schreiber jokes, later clarifying his gesture indicates that the engineer continue with the car’s crawl until it connects with the bright red carriage in front of it.  

Eventually, the Aurora, Colo., native places his arms at his side and smiles, signaling the halfway mark of his business’ venture to transport eight cars south for the new Kansas Belle Dinner Train. The train, which is co-owned by Schreiber and four others, has slowly been making its way from Fremont, Neb., where it chugged along as the Fremont Dinner Train for nearly 24 years.

While there have been a few logistical hiccups, Bruce Eveland, manager and co-owner of the Kansas Belle, said, the transition has progressed nicely. Four of six passenger cars are now at Midland Railway, 1515 High St., Baldwin City, he said. The company still is awaiting a boxcar and a caboose. After the remaining cars’ arrival, Eveland said, he hopes to offer passengers a smooth, 22-mile ride through Douglas and Franklin counties by as early as mid-December.

The dinner train is intended to bring passengers back to the heyday of rail travel in the 1940s, featuring music from the era and also theatrics reminiscent of the period. In addition to fine dining, Eveland said, he plans to feature a theater series — including murder mysteries, melodramas and perhaps train robberies — for passengers’ enjoyment.

“I think that added entertainment certainly [will meet] a lot of people’s expectations of what they want when they go out for an evening,” Eveland said, adding that dinner train rides will cost about $60.

In addition to some early funding gaps, a former Kansas law also inhibited the train company’s plans. The law outlawed the serving of alcohol on railway cars, which would have affected the company’s dinner options, Eveland said. Thanks to a local legislator’s work, however, the train company can offer wine, beer and other alcoholic drinks with passengers’ meals.

In March, state Rep. TerriLois Gregory, R-Baldwin City, presented the Dinner Railcar Liquor License bill, which allows train companies to serve alcohol to their passengers in Kansas.

“Midland Rail contacted me to help last February with the anomaly in Kansas liquor laws,” Gregory said.

“I vigorously lobbied the assistance of other legislators to support my bill. ... I am thrilled with what my legislative work has helped create,” Gregory said.

Without the new legislation, Eveland said, the company likely would have sought other business opportunities.  

“It was a necessary factor,” Eveland said of Gregory’s bill. “It’s with her help that we got the legislation through.”

The train, Eveland said, also should help boost the local economy, as the company plans to add two full-time and up to 15 part-time positions to serve the train.  

To incentivize the train company’s move, several public organizations have offered funds to aid in the transition, including a $5,000 Baldwin City Economic Development grant, a $54,000 heritage grant from Douglas County and a $25,000 Entrepreneurship Communities loan.

“I hope that we certainly meet the expectations of what these public entities are expecting,” Eveland said. “The name of the game obviously is to try to create a lot of visits to the area. Businesses need people coming, staying the night to spend money on other things and to try to create a destination both locally and regionally.”

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