Deal struck in downtown dinner train plans

The board of Lexington Center Corp. on Thursday approved a 99-year lease with RJ Corman Railroad Group, helping further plans for a dinner train to operate out of downtown Lexington.

"It might very well be available for the holiday season," said Fred Mudge, chairman of the Corman board. He estimated that track could be laid in 60 days from the Corman rail yard onto the adjoining Lexington Center property.

The train most likely will run to Midway or Frankfort, turn around and come back. The company has operated a similar dinner train out of Bardstown since the late 1980s.

However, the railroad work will have to wait until construction on the Cox Street bridge is completed because the tracks have to go under the bridge. The Newtown Pike extension and the bridge are due to be open for traffic in September.

In the short term, the dinner train will give Lexington Center an attraction popular with visitors as well as area residents, said Bill Owen, president of Lexington Center.

"In the long term, we don't know where it can lead in terms of public transportation," he said. Today, everybody drives their own vehicle, but "that paradigm could change."

"In the meantime, it's going to be fun to take a dinner train," he said.

Owen pointed out that there is no place in Lexington where a rail line can be brought closer to the downtown core. "Indeed, right to the steps of Lexington Center and Rupp Arena that attract 1.2 million visitors annually," he said.

Corman will pay rent of $1 a year to Lexington Center. For the first 10 years, the center will receive 5 percent of the dinner train's total revenue, which they estimate to be $40,000 to $50,000. From the 11th year on, Lexington Center will receive 5 percent of dinner train revenue linked only to groups holding conventions at the center and doing other business there.

"We believe we can generate revenue through a marketing effort," Owen said.

Corman has not decided how many days a week the train will run or whether the company will build a depot where passengers can wait for the train.

Mudge said the company is still working on plans, as "we're a little bit ahead of the game because we weren't sure we were going to get the lease from the Lexington Center."

In Bardstown, My Old Kentucky Dinner Train runs three days a week in the spring and five days in the summer for lunch and dinner. Whether the Lexington market can support that kind of schedule, "we'll have to wait and see," Mudge said.

But with the lease signed, Corman can turn its attention to finding cars and a crew, he said.

The Bardstown train has four to five cars. Meals are prepared by the Corman company chef in one of the cars, and alcohol is served.

"It has been a success in Bards town, and hopefully, the market here would support something like that," Mudge said.