After more than four decades, an elaborate model railroad may have only a few months left at the Napa Valley Expo. But its builders and supporters are not giving up their place at the fairground without a fight.
Packing a meeting room Tuesday morning at the Expo grounds on Third Street, members and allies of the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society petitioned the fair’s board of directors to rethink its July decision not to extend the club’s lease when it expires Dec. 31.
Rail hobbyists made a late push either to preserve the Quonset huts housing the highly detailed, 1/87-scale rails, engines, boxcars and scenic dioramas – or at least to give the society extra time to explore where to relocate an intricate system that train lovers have assembled since 1971.
“The layout itself – not the building – is the community resource,” Wayne Monger, president of the model railroad society, told board members during public comments. “It is a historical artifact; it’s a work of art of multiple generations. The model railroad has community value as an educational asset.”
Napa fair directors in recent years have plotted out a massive renovation of the fairgrounds, both to meet the needs of modern-day events and to replace facilities damaged by the 2014 earthquake and later demolished.
A master plan for the overhaul, released in January, calls for replacing the model train building with a parking area to serve visitors at a new multi-use pavilion that would host the Town & Country Fair’s Junior Livestock Auction every August, and other events during the year. Fairground directors have said the goal of the upgrades is to create facilities suitable for multiple uses and not limited to one purpose.
The pending expiration has left the rail society scrambling to find a replacement for its train system, which currently occupies 3,600 square feet.
Given the small area the train collection occupies within the Napa fairground, club members and their allies urged the Expo to continue giving their program a space – or at least more time to find one – to keep the hobby accessible to residents in an area increasingly dominated by tourism.
“I hope we could have been a part your master plan, and not be eliminated from the plan,” said Gary Valentinsen, a member of the model railroad society. “If we disassemble the current layout, it will be lost forever.”
“The railroad club occupies a mere smidgeon of the Expo here, and it brings so much joy to people,” said Dan Mufson, president of Napa Vision 2050, an alliance of local environmental groups. “I hope that at the end of the day, you keep something that’s part of the soul of Napa. We’re losing that; you know it.”
At the heart of train enthusiasts’ anxiety is what they call the near-impossibility of transplanting a web of cars, tracks, backdrops and props – both because of its complexity and because of soaring rents across Napa. The society pays the Expo only $180 in monthly rent, well below current market rates.
Because the fair board did not announce the model railroad’s future in its meeting agenda, members did not vote on the issue or debate it. But board president John Dunbar described the ending of the lease – and the larger effort to redesign the fairground – as a necessary step in its stewardship of the Expo, which is state-owned and not governed by the city or Napa County.
“You may not believe us, but we do not control the destiny of your club,” Dunbar, the mayor of Yountville, told rail enthusiasts. “The concern that we are destroying the club is an unfair characterization. We have a responsibility to oversee a state-owned property. There’s been a significantly below-market rent for this property, and we don’t see (charging) $180 a month to be financially responsible.”
Members of the hobby club have been in talks with the Napa Valley Wine Train about temporarily assembling a smaller train layout at the rail line’s station house on McKinstry Street. Brooks Street, a development firm that co-owns the Wine Train, also has proposed hosting tracks and trains at a five-story luxury hotel it plans to build on land near the depot.
“This club has an opportunity to re-create a train layout in a high-traffic location,” Jeri Hansen-Gill, the Expo board’s vice president, said of the Wine Train proposal. “The synergies are clear and exciting. The potential new location would provide infinitely more exposure for both the club and the hobby.”
The train group’s search for a permanent base may require several years, however, and enthusiasts speaking to the fair board Tuesday doubted their organization could survive that long without a working display to retain its members or attract new ones.
“It’s no substitute for what we have in that building,” Monger said of a possible interim display at the Wine Train station, which he added would be no more than a fifth the size of the Expo layout.
Barring a lease extension, the model railroad society may have only weeks to clear out of the Expo, but Monger said how much time remains is unclear. While the club may have to begin breaking down the display around Nov. 1 because of the mass and complexity of the equipment, some members hope to keep the building open later into the month and await events, he said.
Gill, meanwhile, sought to separate the issue of the rail society’s future from the Expo’s need to properly manage a state-owned fairground for the benefit of a wide variety of users.
“I wish the club would focus their support and energy on taking advantage of next opportunities and evolving as well,” she said. “We want to see them in a place where they get much more exposure and public interaction than they get right now.”