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Pere Marquette Depot Boffo at Ribbon Cutting Ceremony

Community Growth Seen Arising From Restored Century-Old Rail Center

June 18, 2008       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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Mrs. Edwin Kitzman, widow of the last depot employee, and Gary Labadie of the Great Lakes Center Foundation, preside at the Pere Marquette Depot ribbon cutting, flanked by Bay Area Chamber of Commerce ambassadors.
(MyBayCity Photo by Dave Rogers)

Bay Area Chamber of Commerce ambassadors, from left, Steph Kolomak, Sandy Pope and Patti Matuszewski, await visitors at the Pere Marquette Depot ribbon cutting ceremony.
(MyBayCity Photo by Dave Rogers)

The best omen came when a cloudy sky cleared minutes before the ribbon cutting ceremony at the Pere Marquette Depot in downtown Bay City mid-afternoon Monday.

It was like a sign from on high that Bay City's future will be as bright as the azure sky dotted with puffy white clouds that draped itself over the depot.

"It's an adaptive reuse," explained Charles Curtiss of the Great Lakes Center Foundation, prime mover in the historically correct renovation. "When we started this was Bay City's largest bird house and the only totally abandoned building downtown."

Breathless crowd in awe at grandeur of renovated depot prior to ribbon cutting.
(MyBayCity Photo by Dave Rogers)

After the last Greyhound bus left in 1969, and the building was closed, Bay Cityans began to dream about what, if anything, the old depot could become. A court facility, Clara's Restaurant, part of the library system -- all were considered -- and abandoned as impractical. Ideas of demolishing the building met stiff resistance in the community.

The depot will be an information center for citizens and visitors and a welcome center will be operated by the Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, formerly located in the Chamber building, 901 Saginaw St.

The second floor, with six large offices, a kitchen and a large board room, will house the Bay Area Community Foundation.

Following the National Park Service standards, the tower, canopy and porte cochere were recreated, doors and windows restored to original sizes, the waiting room restored to two stories and ticket office recreated, according to Ilene (Rogers) Tyler, FAIA, of Quinn Evan Architects, Ann Arbor.

Gasps of admiration from the hundreds of visitors were as real as the original 104 year old stone and brick that has remained rooted at Boutell Place and foot of Fourth Avenue since the height of the Victorian age.

It is the last survivor of five passenger railroad stations in the city. It was the northernmost terminus of the Pere Marquette.

"Simply amazing," gushed Realtor Cindy Sinicki, her reaction to the project typical of those who prowled through the two story masterpiece with mouths agape.

They trod on original flooring cut by the R.W. Young Co. in Salzburg and roamed through offices that at one time housed railroad officials, Mutual of Omaha insurance agents and the office of Ernie Matthews, the manager of the Rail Development Center.

The Rail Development Center was the brainchild of Henry Briggs, president of the New York Central System, and a much-touted idea of a modern shopping center. Briggs was interested in Bay City because he was married to Peggy Sharpe, daughter of Ed Sharpe, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, who lived on Ninth Street.

The depot was the headquarters for the 1952 project that included A&P and National food stores and the H.W. Woolworth "dime" store. Woolworth's displaced the East Michigan Tourist Association "log office" on the corner of Fifth and Adams and the Chesapeake and Ohio freight warehouse.

The idea of parking in back of the stores that were contiguous and fronted main streets was deemed revolutionary by The New York Times. Some of you remember the days when stores were all individual and off-street parking was non-existent.

Part of the project were Nu-Vision, Central Hearing Aid, Liberty Loan, Barker's Shoes, and the Wise Shop linked together on Fifth and on Adams were Pacific Finance, Superior Abstract, Alden's Catalog Store, and Buttercup Bakery.

How about the second generation businesses in the center: Furlo's, the Fortress, Harbor House Restaurant, the Imperial (after the hotel across the street was torn down)?

Theodore Roosevelt was President when the Pere Marquette Railroad opened its Union Station in Bay City. Nine sets of tracks devolved into town and a huge freight warehouse flanked Adams Street.

Nearby, in a still standing red brick building was a Swift & Co. meat packing plant.

Only the earliest of motorcars competed with horse-drawn conveyances on the city's streets, and you could take the Interurban and connecting lines as far as Cleveland.

The Pere Marquette rail line ran to and from the south and the Detroit and Mackinac headed north from Union Station, explained Curtiss.

The ribbon cutting was done by dignitaries headed by Mrs. Edwin Kitzman, whose husband began work in the building as a ticket agent in 1948 and who was one of the last employees of the railroad. He died in October 2006.

The last train to stop at the depot was the Art Train in the early 1950s, although regular traffic had stopped in the late 1940s, said Mr. Curtiss.

"Overnight success often takes a minimum of 20 years," said Mr. Curtiss, noting "it's been a long and crazy road to get this far."

Bonnie Marsh, former director of BACF, was credited with initiating the idea of a permanent home for the foundation in 1999.

Mr. Curtiss recalled the start of the Great Lakes Center Foundation with funds from a 1993 grant obtained by former U.S. Rep. J. Robert Traxler for an Environmental Protection Agency project along the Saginaw River.

"The governor's designation of Bay City as a 'Cool City' had a significant effect on our ability to get funds," he added.

Consultant Al Bogdan helped secure about 8 percent of the state's total grant allocation from the U.S. Department of Transportation, said Mr. Curtiss.

County Executive Thomas L. Hickner and then County Board Chair Eugene Gwizdala made sure support from the county was forthcoming and developer Jim Reid, who owned the building for a short time, secured it by installing a new roof.

The Herald Company, publishers of The Bay City Times, did a land swap to provide a handy parking lot for the depot.

A $2.6 million loan was approved by the board of the Bay County Growth Alliance just in time to secure New Markets tax credits, recalled Cliff VanDyke, president of the Growth Alliance. All but $765,000 of the loan has already been repaid, he said.###

Chamber ambassadors schmooze with cops at opening as crowd swells to several hundred.
(MyBayCity Photo by Dave Rogers)

The depot in its glory days, with passengers preparing to board huffing train on one of nine sets of tracks into the city.
(MyBayCity Photo by Dave Rogers)

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at carraroe@aol.com)

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