Ownership, contracting questions swirl around Logan County rail museum

RUSSELLVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The train depot on West Second Street hasn’t had passenger service for decades. Parts of the Depression-era station are flecked with rust, including pillars that once supported a roof over an outside platform.

But During World War II and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, soldiers left from and returned to the building, said Tom Harned, executive director of the Logan Economic Alliance for Development.

“That train station holds a lot of memories and a lot of value for citizens of Russellville and Logan County,” he said.

Community leaders say $383,471 in federal highway funds will provide a tourism boost by converting the depot into a museum. It’s one of four transportation museum projects underway in mostly rural Kentucky communities.

Federal “transportation enhancement” money is paying for the work. Congress chose to stop funding museums in 2012, so Kentucky is using unspent money from before then to aid the projects.  

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“Russellville will benefit from heritage and historical tourism drawing many visitors,” Logan County Fiscal Court, in partnership with Historic Russellville Inc., wrote in its application for the funds.

But Logan County Judge-Executive Logan Chick and project officials say they’re not aware of any studies supporting those claims. Chick said in an interview that the depot’s potential for a museum emerged during a Veterans’ Day celebration several years ago that drew about 130 people, about twice as many as had attended previous events.

And he noted that R.J. Corman, the Nicholasville, Ky.,-based railroad company that owns the depot and a line next to it, will incur the cost of operating the museum.

“We’re just passing the money through the county for the project,” Chick said.

Chick referred detailed questions to R.J. Corman. Fred Mudge, chairman of the Corman board of directors, said plans call for the county to operate the museum and Corman to choose the artifacts.

Mudge, who was Transportation Secretary under Gov. Paul Patton, said he wasn’t aware of a feasibility study for the project.

“Russellville has a lot of history in and of itself, so just adding another element to that would make it pretty popular, I believe,” he said.

Kentucky’s rules for spending federal money on transportation museums prohibit the funds from improving private property.

Mudge said Corman is working to lease the property to the county for the “life of the public funds” – possibly as long as 20 years.

The federal grant would nonetheless pay for restoring a building that Corman owns. Asked why that arrangement isn’t in conflict with Kentucky policy, Transportation Cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe said “everything being done is permissible.”

“I can’t elaborate on that,” he said. “All I know is that every detail of this the Cabinet has carefully vetted with (the Federal Highway Administration) to make sure what is done is within the rules, within the law and Federal Highways has signed off on it.”

Kentucky also requires that state contracting rules be followed, but Mudge said Corman will use its construction arm to renovate the depot. He said the railroad is allowed to use a “force account” system that avoids competitive bidding. 

The approach is permitted, although “possibly unprecedented” for the Transportation Cabinet, Wolfe said.

“Our typical arrangement would be for the privately owned depot to be donated to the local government or a permanent easement granted to the local government,” Wolfe said in an email. “In this case, Corman was unwilling to donate.”

Unlike other buildings in Kentucky set to become transportation museums, the Russellville depot sits away from the city’s main business district. The elevated U.S. 68 bypass carries traffic over the area.

Mudge said he doesn’t view the building’s location as an obstacle, noting it is “a block or two” from busier thoroughfares.   

Sandy Pearl Lame, co-owner of Pearls Antiques on S. Main Street, said parking could be a problem for the museum, but she believes people would visit it.

On a recent afternoon, her store’s guestbook included entries from New Mexico, Texas, North Carolina and Illinois.

“We have a lot of people traveling through here that really enjoy going to the historical divisions and seeing the old houses,” she said. “So there’s a lot of interest in history.”

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