- Associated Press - Saturday, October 22, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Smitten with the romance of the rails? Consider spending the night aboard the City of Peru, which may finally find a home on the edge of the French Quarter.

The 1920s-era Pullman coach is one of three antique rail cars that the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad acquired over an eight-year span beginning in 2002, ostensibly to help educate clients and businesses about the agency’s 25 miles of track that connect the six major rail lines serving the Port of New Orleans.

The railroad paid about $2 million to acquire and painstakingly refurbish two of the rail cars, which later became a symbol of corruption amid reports of lavish spending by the agency’s then-general manager, Jim Bridger, who loaned them to friends wishing to host boozy parties.

Bridger was forced to resign, pleaded guilty to misappropriation of public funds and was sentenced to probation in 2012.

Since then, the third car, the City of Peru, has sat in storage, gutted but unfinished. It was in the worst condition of the three cars, and much work remains to be done. To recoup the $1 million it has invested in the car, the Public Belt is considering a new approach: turning to Airbnb.

Officials are studying the idea of restoring the rail car into a unique lodging option by equipping it with a pair of queen-sized beds, plus showers and bathrooms, a small kitchenette and a living room area. They’ll also give it a new name. One possibility: The Big Easy.

“Everything you would find in a nice, high-end hotel suite or a luxury condominium, but you’d have it on the rails, so you’d have the uniqueness of what they represent,” Scott Richoux, the agency’s director of special projects, said at a recent board meeting.

If the work is done right, Richoux expects that that the allure of spending the night in an antique rail car located in the heart of the French Quarter would be great enough to rent the car out for $300 to $350 a night, potentially generating more than $100,000 annually.

The operation would have “very little overhead and operating expense,” he said, pegging costs at about 15 percent of revenues.

While it’s still early in the process, the idea drew a warm reception from the agency’s board last month.

“I’m so excited about this and the creative thinking that went into it,” board member Edgar Chase III said at the meeting. “I really am enthusiastic. I hope we implement this as diligently as we can.”

That’s a far different sentiment from what was initially proposed for the rail car’s fate in the scandal’s aftermath, when some suggested dismantling it and selling it off for parts. The agency considered selling all three cars but held off after the lone offer it received was much less than it had already invested in them.

Before the restoration effort was halted in the aftermath of the scandal, Richoux said, the City of Peru had “a significant amount of work done to it,” including replacing the wheels, brakes, generator and fuel tank. Additional materials were acquired and have sat unused.

The coach, which is about 90 feet long and would have about 800 square feet of living space, would also benefit from being placed on prime real estate near the French Market.

The land, which is owned by the Public Belt, offers a secure, gated area where officials say other luxury rail cars, including the Patron Tequila Express, a meticulously restored 1927 vintage car, have been parked while in New Orleans, including extended stays by actor Dan Aykroyd.

Meanwhile, New Orleans’ annual visitor count continues to climb, nearing the 10.1 million people who traveled to the city in 2004 before Hurricane Katrina’s devastation upended the local tourism industry. The agency hopes to capture a bit of that market.

Last year, local hotels guests spent a per-trip average of $1,011 apiece and stayed an average of 4.2 nights, according to a recent study by the University of New Orleans’ Hospitality Research Center.

Moreover, a unique offering such as a restored Pullman car could appeal to locals as well as out-of-town travelers, said David Pearlman, an associate professor at UNO’s Lester E. Kabacoff School of Hotel, Restaurant & Tourism Administration.

“You’d get a lot of locals that would do an overnight weekend getaway in their own town, because of that whole novelty of it being a train,” he said.

Richoux also sees that opportunity. “It definitely sparks people’s curiosity,” he said. “Who doesn’t love railroads? We think that this wouldn’t only appeal to rail fans.”

Once the work is finished, the Public Belt also could rent the coach to someone interested in traveling across the country with it.

As of now, Richoux admits that the car is “not much to see.” Restoration could take about a year, with some work to be completed in-house with the materials already on hand. He said he doesn’t know exactly how much the work would cost.

Renting the two fully restored rail cars for private events has started “actually turning a profit,” Richoux said. But there’s no demand for a third car for such events, he added.

Additional questions surrounding the idea remain to be answered, including ensuring that the agency complies with all laws and regulations, and deciding how the car would be rented out. Because the railroad is a city agency, that task would likely have to be put out to bid, with a local real estate agency maybe making the most sense.

“I think we can be successful, but at the end of the day, we’re still a railroad,” Richoux said. “We still have a railroad to run, and that’s always going to be our core objective. But if we can take an existing asset that we’ve got and somehow gain some positive return, then we definitely want to explore all options.”

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Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, https://www.neworleansadvocate.com


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