Trolleys on track to funding Streetcars: Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano will push to extend Baltimore museum's deadline to use bond money.

January 19, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

To make the leap from a weekend hobby club to downtown tourist attraction, the Baltimore Streetcar Museum is depending on the political savvy and generosity of longtime Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano.

The 52-year-old Bereano, a friend of museum director John C. O'Neill, has been donating his time to the trolley exhibit for about three years.

In 1996, the New York-born attorney helped get a $190,000 bond bill passed for the museum. The all-volunteer organization, which intends to use the money to plan for relocation and expansion, was given two years to spend the cash. Because the museum is looking for a new home, Bereano will lobby the legislature this year to extend the deadline.

After that, he'll be looking for much larger sums to get a new museum rolling down the tracks. At the same time, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer has joined the museum board and is recruiting other big names.

"It's difficult getting people other than train buffs to come down to the streetcar museum, even if they could find it," says Bereano of the complex at 1905 Falls Road between Maryland Avenue and Hampden. "It's highly compatible with the B&O Railroad Museum [on Pratt Street], which would like to have it for a neighbor because their interests feed off of each other. You could take a trolley ride between the museums."

Visits to the streetcar museum -- estimated at about 20,000 a year in the 1970s -- have declined steadily since the opening of more glitzy Inner Harbor fare in the 1980s. Today, about 4,000 people a year visit, many of them hard-core train enthusiasts from around the country.

Most of the men who founded the museum -- including scores of old conductors and motormen -- are dead.

"For the first 25 years, the museum was operated more like a club by the older guys who lived it," said Andrew S. Blumberg, 41, the museum's public relations officer. "Now you mostly have people like me who don't remember streetcars. If we're going to move, it's going to take the kind of money that an all-volunteer operation with a $50,000 budget is not in a league to do."

The last link to a streetcar heritage that ended in Baltimore in 1963, the old-timers who built the museum tended to be a conservative lot who never ran a deficit and spent nearly all their spare time reliving an era they loved.

The play-it-safe atmosphere lingers to the point where the museum has about $100,000 in the bank. Some enthusiasts were disturbed to learn that a fast-talking deal-maker like Bruce Bereano was doing their bidding in Annapolis.

"Some members took umbrage that he was helping us but they were few," said O'Neill, warden of the Harford County Detention Center, who met Bereano when public safety issues came before the General Assembly. "I told them Bruce would be good for us because he has a presence in Annapolis that we don't. If he's talking to a legislator about another matter, he can bring up the streetcar museum."

The uneasiness with Bereano -- once the highest-paid lobbyist in Annapolis -- stems from his 1994 mail fraud conviction, which is under appeal.

Said Bereano: "God forbid that people should think someone is doing something just to be nice."

"Bereano's not a bad guy. They shouldn't be worried about him," said Schaefer, who said he would like to see names such as civic leaders Willard Hackerman, Chip Mason and Peter Angelos added to the museum board. "Bruce is a little pushy, but you need somebody like that to get things done."

The museum, founded in 1966, opened in 1971 on public works property along Falls Road during Schaefer's first term as mayor of Baltimore.

The museum remained quaint, Schaefer said: "Because no one knew what a super job these men were going to do restoring these cars and running them. That's been their one purpose and they do a great job. They never tried to go after big money."

Between $6 million and $8 million ultimately will be needed to relocate the trolley cars -- including a deteriorating one that stood for years as Jack's Corn Stand at McDonogh and Reisterstown roads -- lay new track, build storage barns and an exhibit and visitors center, said O'Neill. Funding would be requested over time with development phased in, he said.

About a half-dozen new locations have been narrowed down in and around Carroll Park, the B&O museum and the old Montgomery Ward building near Washington Boulevard that is scheduled for demolition to create a repair yard for Maryland Rail Commuter trains.

"We could remain independent but share visitors and do a lot more than we're doing separately now," said John H. Ott, B&O museum director. "We haven't broken 100,000 visitors since 1992, but last year we got 94,948 people paid through the door. Maybe two-thirds of those would go to see the streetcars.

"Transportation is what made this side of town very strong," said Ott. "One hundred and seventy years ago this July, the B&O was founded here. Trains brought livestock to the stockyards of Pigtown, big foundries made locomotive parts, the Catholic church was the church of the railroaders. Even the a-rabbers are trying to start a small museum over on Lemmon Street. We need to tie all of this together into one unified story."

Pub Date: 1/19/98

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