ROCHELLE — The City of Rochelle’s improvements to the Railfan Park gift shop are slated to begin in coming weeks with completion planned for the spring.
At its Jan. 9 meeting, the city council unanimously approved an ordinance accepting and approving a proposal from Bruns Construction for the work.
Bruns Construction was the low bid at $167,175. As part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), federal funds designated to communities were eligible for tourism-related expenditures due to pandemic-related impacts on the industry. As a result, various improvements to the gift shop were identified by city staff. The project includes the addition of a handicap ramp entrance, bathroom remodels, addition of a front window and new siding, gutters and soffit.
The city’s 2023 hotel/motel budget includes $135,000 in ARPA funds for the project and $32,175 in hotel/motel cash reserves and an additional $17,000 as a project contingency were approved Jan. 9.
"It's exciting because these are some projects we had on our radar before COVID-19 and to be able to complete them with grant funds is always helpful for our budget and we can allocate other money to other improvements at the park and other community events,” City Director of Community Engagement Jenny Thompson said. “We've had some challenges there with pipes freezing and things like that with the cold winter months. We're looking forward to correcting some of those issues. We're re-siding the building and it'll look really nice once it's complete. We're putting some more retail-style doors on. We're excited."
Railfan Park welcomes several thousand visitors each year from around the region and more. The city recently put together a map of all visitors that signed in during the past year and where they reside. The map included international visitors, which occurred for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It's exciting to see that picking up again,” Thompson said. “We just want to offer a nice space for the rail fans to enjoy the facilities, to be able to have good, clean working restrooms and keep our building up and keep the railroad park a nice place to visit."
The train park and gift shop have seen a number of improvements over the years, including a new roof, flooring and windows, cleanup around the grounds and the addition of shelters and benches by community organizations. The exterior gift shop improvements will be the first in 6-7 years.
Thompson hopes to have the latest project wrapped up by Railroad Days in May.
“It's been a lot of small things here and there, but this will be a nice, big project to get crossed off the list,” Thompson said.
The city conducted a survey a few years ago and asked park attendees what else they do during their time in Rochelle. They found that railfans patronize local restaurants, shops, hotels and gas stations.
“Those are all dollars spent in our community that come from outside of our community,” Thompson said. “That's always a benefit to have that. And then it's people visiting our town who can spread the word about Rochelle being a nice place to visit. That's always a positive, too."
Thompson said that longtime Rochelle residents don’t always realize the tourist attraction that Railfan Park can be. Its uniqueness includes “the diamond” where two railroads intersect and trains change tracks. The park also has webcams where fans can watch the trains online. That was utilized during COVID-19 and viewership has reached 300,000 views a month at times.
Back in 2019 the park attracted thousands of visitors when Big Boy No. 4014, a rare train, came through town.
“It was the perfect example of capitalizing on what we have here,” Thompson said. “It's actually a very unique experience for rail fans and it's always interesting to hear from the fans who come from all over the country and say, 'We love Rochelle. It's the best place we visit and we go to a lot of different train parts.' That's always exciting to me."
The city recently went through an engineering process on Railfan Park after surveying visitors on improvements they’d like to see. That process yielded three phases of potential improvement, the first of which is the current gift shop upgrades.
The second phase would be extending the viewing platform on the west side of the park to add more space and a better view of the diamond.
“The third would be sort of a very long-range plan of adding some additional parking to the south,” Thompson said, “The city owns the grassy lots there to the south and we've looked at adding some additional parking and perhaps even a camper hookup someday. Just some more space to grow and keep inviting new visitors."