Plans, Trains and Automobiles

Squeezed by big-bucks developments, the eccentric Forney Museum is ready to hit the highway.

Forney believes all that will change after the sale to REI goes through. He won't disclose how much the company is willing to pay for the old powerhouse, but he makes it clear it will be enough to fund a new building and refurbish much of the collection.

"The building is valuable," says Forney. "We're taking that value and making our other dreams come true. The expense of maintaining the building was taking all our funds."

The sale to REI, however, is contingent on the company's ability to negotiate a subsidy from the city. REI has reportedly requested as much as $12 million in tax-increment financing from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. While the Seattle firm had hoped the project would be under way by this fall, it probably won't meet that deadline.

"The building is falling down," says REI's Cannard. "We're trying to work with the city on coming up with a site plan and some potential financial assistance. We're just trying to make the economics work."

If the deal goes through, the new REI store will be modeled after the company's megastore in downtown Seattle. Cannard says that store has become the number-one tourist attraction in Seattle, surpassing even the Space Needle. "It attracts a huge volume of people," he says. "A lot of people spend hours there."

Forney says the city wants the REI store because of the potential tax revenue it could generate. "The mayor likes to take projects like that and get all the credit for it," he says. "They've never given us a dime."

City officials, though, say Forney has never understood how nonprofit groups in Denver need to go about fundraising. They say the city can't help the Forney until it shows an ability to attract private-sector dollars.

"Jack has never been able to understand the Denver situation and fundraising," says senior city planner Ellen Ittelson. "It would be sad to see the Forney Museum go, but we're not in a position to just step up and hand him something. It takes a lot of wherewithal to operate a private, nonprofit museum."

The city hasn't hesitated to help several of the other attractions going into the valley. Denver gave Colorado's Ocean Journey a $7 million loan and provided the for-profit Elitch's with $8.5 million in funding through the Denver Urban Renewal Authority in addition to a $7 million loan from federal community block-grant development funds. Denver is also spending $21 million to develop the 25-acre Commons Park between 15th and 20th streets on the south bank of the South Platte River.

Ittelson says Ocean Journey and Elitch's raised millions on their own before asking the city for help. That's what Denver expects when nonprofits like the Forney come calling, she adds: "We should be a fundraising source of last resort."

With only 50,000 visitors per year, the Forney Museum is hardly a huge moneymaker for anyone. Jack Forney says all the money that's raised from the $4 admission charge goes into maintaining the building. "We've spent $350,000 to $400,000 on the building in the past few years," he says.

Should the sale to REI fall through, Forney expects to sell the building to someone else. In addition to having an option to buy land north on I-25, he says he's also looking at other potential locations for the museum.

Forney's plans for a new facility include moving the railcars and locomotives indoors, putting the museum's now-hidden collection of seventy wax figures on display, building an outdoor pavilion for motor clubs and making the museum more child-friendly. He also believes he'll be able to hire more staff to refurbish the collection, something he hopes will encourage more collectors to donate their old cars to the museum.

"We'll probably sell off less interesting cars and open up the way for cars that collectors want to give," he adds.

The irony of the city losing its only transportation museum even as it develops flashy new entertainment venues on the site of former railyards isn't lost on Forney. But he says he's convinced that the Forney Museum's future now lies outside of Denver.

"We'd like to be part of the Platte recreational area," he says. "But when you hit a brick wall, you have to see what your options are.

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