Negotiations are in the works to save the miniature train that carried tourists around Queen Wilhelmina State Park each summer for the past 60 years, paving the way toward a reopening this summer, State Parks Director Grady Spann said Friday.
The Glory Train did not open on Memorial Day weekend this year as it has in the past after the state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission decided not to renew the concessions contract that allows the train to operate on state-owned land.
The decision set off an outcry from people in Polk County, around the state, Oklahoma and Texas, and as far away as Canada. An online petition seeking to save the train was signed by thousands of people. State leaders reported that their phones were "ringing off the hook," and the area's legislators joined in the fight.
"It's a neat thing to see a community coming together," Spann said. "It shows a great emotional connection to the park, which I'm really glad to see. It's always good to see people are invested in their state parks. And we paid attention to that."
Spann, whose division is in the state Department of Parks and Tourism, would not expound on the details of the ongoing negotiations.
"What I can say is that we're looking at the option to reissue a new contract for this season," he said. "We are still in the discussion stage."
The commission had planned to transform the tracks into a walking and cycling barrier-free path that would include "playscapes" that pay homage to the park's namesake, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. A resort -- now the state park -- that opened in 1898 was named after her because investors in the working railroad in the valley below were from the Netherlands. There were hopes that the queen would visit the area, but she never did, and she died in 1948.
The miniature train, as well as a refreshment stand and miniature golf course, are outliers compared with other state parks that are more holistic and allow people a connection to nature, Spann said previously.
Ronnie Waggoner, the train's owner, said he received a rough draft of the proposed contract Thursday, but is negotiating some finer points. He would not elaborate. He also owns the refreshment stand and miniature golf course, which also are shut down.
"We would love to open up by the Fourth of July," he said.
Waggoner said the state wants him to install a new computerized point-of-sale system to keep better track of income from snack and beverage sales, golf fees and train rides.
Under the original contract, Waggoner was required to submit monthly cash receipts reports, as well as seasonal financial reports. In exchange for using state land for the concession, Waggoner was required to pay an annual fee of $5,500 during the first two years of the contract -- which was signed in 2013 -- and then 10 percent of gross revenue each month beginning in 2016.
Documents obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette under the state Freedom of Information Act showed that Waggoner was reprimanded by the state for spotty compliance with financial requirements and payments to the state.
Even though he paid the required fees each year, the payments to the state were not made on a monthly basis as required by the contract.
Since 2013, Waggoner reported a little more than $99,000 in revenue -- $77,000 of which came solely from the train, which charges $6.50 for riders 8 years old and above -- and made four payments to the state totaling $19,250.
The total revenue does not include earnings from 2015 and 2017 because Waggoner did not submit financial records to the state for those years.
The state waived the fees for 2014 and 2015 while Queen Wilhelmina Lodge was closed for remodeling.
Financial records for 2014 showed that the train rides, the snack concessions and the golf course earned Waggoner $27,434.31 while the lodge was closed. He said he didn't submit records because of the closure.
After the lodge reopened in 2016, Waggoner reported earning $50,390.72 that year, with more than $40,000 coming from the train.
When asked if improved financial reporting was part of the proposed new contract, Spann said he had no comment.
Waggoner said he purchased the train and other concessions about five years ago for about $160,000. Since then, he has repaired the tracks, put in new heating and air systems, and made electrical and water improvements to the depot and to the miniature golf course.
"I've put over $275,000 into that train," Waggoner said.
Riding the miniature train atop the 2,681-foot-high Rich Mountain in Polk County is a tradition that spans generations for its riders.
Leona Sherwood-Elder, who was born in Mena and now lives in Mount Ida, said the train ride atop the mountain remains a favorite childhood memory. She has since taken her children and grandchildren to ride the miniature rails.
"We couldn't go on a lot of vacations, but we could always go to the mountain," she said.
Sherwood-Elder, who has multiple sclerosis, said she wouldn't be able to enjoy the mountain if the state goes ahead with its plan to turn the tracks into a walking trail.
"And that upsets me," she said.
Carla Vaught -- a Polk County extension agent who lives in Mena and rode the train as a child -- said the miniature train adds to Mena's economy when visitors spend money in the community.
"It's so different from other state parks," Vaught said. "I don't think it would be in the best interest of Queen Wilhelmina to take it out."
Time is of the essence in getting a new contract signed so the train and the other attractions can be opened by the July 4 holiday, Waggoner said. The train needs to make a few loops around the track to make sure it's working properly, the golf course needs to be spiffed up and the depot shop needs to be restocked with drinks and ice cream.
"I hope and pray that it will work out," Waggoner said. "It will be open with the good Lord's help."
SundayMonday on 06/10/2018
Print Headline: Public outcry stokes talks to keep park's train going