A New Platform

Lee Harkness has big ideas for the Gateway Center Train Station.

Harkness, who was recently appointed as the general manager of the train station, previously worked with the Downtown Jamestown Development Corporation as its executive director. Following a recent merger of the DJDC and the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation, Harkness was offered the position at the train station, which had been a primary project of the DJDC during his time there.

“I’m very proud of what the DJDC did and I was very proud to be part of that,” said Harkness. “They’ve accomplished a lot, and a big part of what they did was the renovation of this train station. Now I’m here at the train station and I’m working through a new facility where I’m discovering things that need to be changed or fixed. Basically there was nothing here before except for the building, not even a closet, so I’m trying to put together an inventory of what we need to operate.”

According to Harkness, there is currently a study being done to determine if it would be feasible for the Gateway Center Train Station to be the home of the National Comedy Hall of Fame. The study is expected to be completed in roughly one year. Currently, the train station serves as a point of service for CARTS, as well as CoachUSA, which runs between Jamestown and Buffalo. There have also been requests to use the space for weddings, reunions, meetings and more.

“I’m planning on putting together a number of different types of events that we can hold here,” said Harkness. “I want to be financially responsible and prudent, though, because this is not a cheap building.”

SEVERAL EVENTS PLANNED

In the coming months, the train station will be playing host to a Kentucky Derby party the first Saturday in May, a flower show and an event to celebrate National Train Day on May 11 that will also serve as an open house for the building. Harkness said that he was also contacted by an Ohio resident who was interested in using the station to show movies during National Train Day, and that he is looking to bring in locomotives from around the area, as well.

“That’s the kind of stuff that we’re doing on our own here,” said Harkness. “We haven’t really had an open house yet, so that’s one of the reasons we wanted to do that. We’re also working with local railroads because my goal is to get excursion trains running to and from Jamestown. We have a small group of people like Chuck Spinner and Ken Springirth, along with the Western New York-Pennsylvania Railroad and the Buffalo-Cattaraugus-Jamestown Scenic Railway that are working to make that happen.”

The excursion trains that Harkness envisions coming through the Gateway Center Train Station would run from Buffalo through Gowanda, so before that can become a reality, there would need to be repairs made to the tracks, which have been abandoned on the end near Jamestown. Once the tracks are in working order, however, there will be a direct route from Buffalo to Jamestown. Harkness also said that he is currently working with area railroad enthusiasts to develop more activity here.

“Since I’ve been here, what I’ve been told is that we have a one-of-a-kind place with this station,” said Harkness. “This was built to be spectacular, and there are no other places like this. My goal is to keep this looking nice so we can have events here. I’d like to develop this so we could eventually have three different things going on at any given time. We have the two wings along with the center lobby, and I’d like to be able to do something in each one of those rooms and still allow the buses to come in and out of here at the same time.”

According to Harkness, the plan is to pursue any events that would be on par with the Fireball Run, which held its banquet at the train station last year when the event came through Jamestown. There have already been weddings held at the facility, and Chautauqua Striders recently held their mentoring banquet there, as well.

“I want to make this a world-class facility that really adds on to all of the other things that we’re doing in Jamestown,” said Harkness. “The other advantage that we have here is that we have the Lucy-Desi Museum, the Jackson Center and the Jamestown Savings Bank Arena, all located in what has basically become a campus area here. You can walk from here or the arena to the entire downtown, whether you’re looking for restaurants, bars or other attractions. The way this is being laid out is very practical.”

LOOKING BACK, AHEAD

The renovations on the train station began in the late 1990s, and according to Harkness, some critics have said that the money could have been spent better elsewhere.

“When we started this project, we had no idea the financial times would be like they are now,” said Harkness. “If we hadn’t taken the money, it would’ve just gone back to the government, and I don’t know of many other times that Jamestown has received federal money like this. We were very successful with the use of the money, so I think in the future they’ll look at Jamestown to be the recipient of grant funds for big projects. I can remember when we went to Buffalo to talk to people about this project. There was a lot of eye-rolling, and people were saying that we wouldn’t get this done. They were down here recently though, and those people were just blown away by the quality of work that went into this renovation.”

The other option that was presented at the time of the renovation was to demolish the building, but Harkness says that most people didn’t understand that to tear the train station down would have been a very expensive proposition – one that would approach the cost of simply renovating it.

“If it hadn’t been renovated, it would’ve been either torn down, which would be very costly and we would have nothing to show for it, or it would have sat empty as an eyesore,” said Harkness. “I really think that we’ve done the right thing. The biggest challenge was that it was just a difficult process to go through that took the hard work of a lot of people to complete.”

Looking into the future, Harkness is hoping to have a solid marketing plan in place to attract events to the Gateway Center Train Station, but currently, he’s optimistic about the response that he’s receiving.

“We don’t really have a plan for marketing in place yet since we’re working on getting things fixed and situated, but we will,” said Harkness. “So far, other than just the normal publicity that we’ve had, I’ve been getting at least a call a day from someone asking to do something here. We will have a formal marketing plan, but at this point it’s marketing itself for the most part. I can’t believe the number of people that are interested in railroads and trains. We’ve seen so much interest in this space already.”