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On the Right Track

Train Brings Visitors, but Fillmore Tourism Still Getting Derailed

October 05, 1997|NICK GREEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FILLMORE — A year after this community declared itself open for business again following the ravages of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the would-be tourist destination faces a dilemma.

The welcome mat hung out at last year's Restoration Celebration to mark the rebirth of the quake-flattened downtown has enticed visitors, all right.

By one measure tourism has almost doubled in the last 12 months. The problem is, people just don't hang around long enough.

Operators of the popular excursion train that runs between Fillmore and Santa Paula only half-jokingly observe that when it pulls out of the station, the town empties with it.

And at the end of the three-hour round trip, most riders jump back in their cars and leave.

The unfortunate reality, officials concede, is that there is little to do in this agricultural Santa Clara Valley community.

"It's not the dilemma I want to be in," concedes city Planner Kevin McSweeney. "There are things to do, it's just that you have to discover them. And what tourist is going to walk around trying to discover them?"

Apart from fast-food joints lining California 126, restaurants are almost nonexistent. Stores catering to tourists are few and far between.

And the city's other main attraction aside from the train, the Fillmore Natural History Museum, is unfinished and only open part time.

What is worse, efforts to create tourist draws have proven shaky as well.

The Fillmore Towne Theatre, lovingly restored since the quake at a cost of $1.2 million, is a box-office bomb.

Its monthly deficit hovers around $4,000, and the theater has lost more than $77,000 since reopening 11 months ago, manager Mike Houser said.

Attendance, which has never met projections, is only half of what it should be, he said.

Fillmore residents may not be reluctant to leave town to visit one of the 76 movie screens within a 25-minute drive, but out-of-towners do not venture to the city even though its ticket prices for a first-run movie are among the county's cheapest, Houser said.

"Fillmore is not that far away, but there's still that perception that we're out in the middle of nowhere and there can't possibly be anything that's going on," he said.

Houser has begun exploring how much investment would be required to start holding live performances in the theater. Initial estimates put the cost at more than $35,000.

But he maintains that the theater will not shut down, confident it will be close to breaking even by next June.

Moreover, a festival last month, dubbed the Heritage Faire and intended to be a permanent successor to the Restoration Celebration, was a flop, officials said.

The unfocused melange of activities that included a bike race, cowboy poetry and a Doobie Brothers concert lost about $45,000.

"It failed, but it's better than nothing," McSweeney said. "The city made an effort to bring business downtown. . . . What we learned from that is a festival takes a number of years to be successful."

The growing pains were not unanticipated.

Last year, with tongue in cheek, City Manager Roy Payne urged the train's owners not to go full steam ahead, lest their success outstrip the town's ability to handle visitors.

The train, which offers Saturday-night murder mystery dinners and began offering monthly wine-tasting dinners in September, is the driving force behind town tourism.

Ridership reached 35,000 in the 12 months ending last month, its first full year of operation of regularly scheduled trips, said Tim Grush, spokesman for the Fillmore & Western Railway Co. In comparison, the train carried about 20,000 people in the previous 12 months.

In addition, visitors eager to enjoy the region's orange groves and other rural charms have begun to displace the train enthusiasts the railroad used to attract, officials said.

However, those day trippers demand a full slate of activities and attractions, owner Dave Wilkinson said. Right now, the most riders can expect is a fun afternoon, he said.

"It's in its infancy, but I really think it's really going to make an attractive place to come in the near future," Wilkinson said. "Fillmore is growing as fast as it possibly can, and I think the restaurants and the additional golf courses will come."

Wilkinson is pledging his future with his pocketbook.

Recent railroad upgrades include two more steam locomotives and two new coaches that are being restored. Wilkinson hopes to have the steam engines running regularly within two years.

A railroad and museum complex being built in conjunction with the Santa Clara Valley Railroad Historical Society and Fillmore Historical Society will include several historical buildings, a 100-foot-long 1930s-era engine shop and a 96-foot-long turntable.

The arrival of the turn-of-the-century turntable from Canada in about three weeks culminates a three-year search.

"When it's in operation, it will draw people from Sacramento south," predicts Pat Askren, vice president of the railroad society.

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