Train Museum Lawsuit Kept A-Rollin': City's About to Stop Paying For Water, Power

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I called council member and Economic Development Committee chair Ron Natinsky late last week about the downtown parking study agenda item, which the council didn't get around to discussing yesterday. (An hour was spent instead on talking about how to create a revolving fund from which to make loans to small Southern Dallas businesses.) When Natinsky called back yesterday, though, we wound up talking about -- what else? -- the city's ongoing legal battle with the Museum of the American Railroad, which the city wants out of Fair Park by August 1.

It was Natinsky who said late last month that the city has "been paying their electric bill for 38 years"; he said yesterday the free ride ends this week. First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers confirms this: He tells Unfair Park that a notice will be sent to the museum "within the next few days" notifying it that the city's about to cut off the electricity. Also contained within the note, a warning that the city's shutting off water service -- which, as it turns out, Dallas has also been paying for decades without reimbursement from the museum.

"We're going to give them advance notice so they will have an opportunity to notify the utilities companies and have services continued," Bowers says. "Some have portrayed us as being mean, but if we were mean we would not be giving them advance notice."

Matter of fact, Bowers says, throughout the ongoing back-and-forth with museum officials, who said two years ago they were moving to Frisco, the city of Dallas has always provided them with advance notice. He says they were told the city was filing its injunction long before attorneys headed to the courthouse in late January; and, Bowers says, they were told last week that Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and city health department inspectors would be paying them a visit to make sure the museum could legally hold its annual Dinner in the Diner last Friday and Saturday nights.

"The TABC went out there Saturday and gave them a warning," Bowers says, "and our food inspectors went out there Saturday and cited them for having fish at an improper temperature. Our view is straightforward: As long as they continue to be there, we expect them comply with the same laws everyone else in the city follows."

Museum officials have till the beginning of March to file a response to the city's request for an injunction, but both Natinsky and Bowers say they've gotten the distinct impression the museum's looking to take this to a courtroom.

Question is: What will the city do if the museum simply refuses to leave? As Museum of the American Railroad president and CEO Bob LaPrelle told Unfair Park, he doesn't have the money to move -- a guesstimated $500,000. "We're a nonprofit," he said at the end of January, "and it's tough to raise funds in this economy." Bowers says the city has learned that's not necessarily true: "We've heard they raise $100,000 every time they hold their Thomas the Train event, and they do have other fund-raising efforts. I would hope they would have some money available to move."

But if not, he says, "we'll explore our options if and when we get there, and I think we will have some. I hope we'll have a court decision well before August 1 so we can figure out what our options are. We are not seeking a court order that they go to Frisco. We're seeking a court order they get off our property. They keep talking about the cost of moving to Frisco, but we know they have an agreement to keep some of their cars a couple of blocks away. When we brought that up they said there's no more space whatsoever. We just want them off city property."
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