Can Thorpe keep train on track?
Local politicians, business owners and tourism officials are weighing in following Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway’s announcement Wednesday morning it would be stopping excursion train rides out of Jim Thorpe on Nov. 25 over an amusement tax dispute with Jim Thorpe Borough.
Earlier this month, Berkheimer, the tax collection agency representing Jim Thorpe borough, filed a suit against the railway for nearly $100,000 in unpaid amusement taxes for the past three years.
In a press release on Wednesday, LGSR officials said they “made it clear to the borough council that it is not an amusement and it will not pay any so-called amusement tax.”
State Rep. Doyle Heffley had been working to bring the two sides together for a meeting and said it’s “unfortunate things have come to this.”
“The trains are an asset to tourism and the community,” Heffley said. “I’m not going to give up. I’m hopeful conversations can continue and we can get the appropriate people to the table. Everyone involved owes it to the other businesses in town to try to keep these trains running.”
Though LGSR’s announcement seems grim for the future of train rides in Jim Thorpe, Council President Greg Strubinger said eleventh hour discussions did take place Wednesday between the two sides.
“There has been discussion today about a meeting,” Strubinger said. “We’re trying to get something together possibly for next week.”
An initial meeting had been scheduled for Wednesday between the two sides and involving Heffley, but it was canceled.
“That was a big point of contention as to how that got canceled,” Strubinger said. “Different people had different recollections of how that happened. The bottom line is that we’re open to talking and hopefully that will be able to happen soon.”
Michael Rivkin, acting president of the Jim Thorpe Tourism Agency, called LGSR’s decision to stop the rides, “sad.”
“I’m extremely disappointed that (LGSR) has opted not to come to the table and try to come to a solution,” Rivkin said. “It’s a slap in the face of everyone that has helped support them for so many years.”
Speaking in his role as co-owner of the Parsonage Bed and Breakfast in Jim Thorpe, Rivkin said he’s lived in tourist towns his whole life and amusement taxes are one of the ways to help manage the effects of tourism.
“The expenses for transportation, police protection and crossing guards alone for the Fall Foliage Festival may exceed $40,000,” Rivkin said. “That money has to come from somewhere. In communities around the world, it is paid for by users through things like the amusement tax, which is added on to the ticket price. It is one of the ways a city or borough recoups those expenses and not further tax the residents of the community.”
Reading and Northern Railroad, the sister company of LGSR, was awarded a $10 million state capital budget grant to build a new railroad bridge over the Lehigh River near Nesquehoning.
“I think the state should withhold the funding for that new Gorge bridge until LGSR comes to the table in good faith,” Rivkin said.
In LGSR’s press release Wednesday, president and CEO Andy Muller Jr. said, “since it is clear that the mayor and borough council do not care about what we have done to assist Jim Thorpe over the last 15 years, a period in which Jim Thorpe borough government has done nothing to assist the railroads, I have decided to focus our energies on communities that want to work with the railroads.”
Contacted for comment, Jim Thorpe Mayor Michael Sofranko, as he has at council’s workshop and meeting in October, said, “Mr. Muller needs to sit down and talk to council in attempt to work things out.”
Other municipalities within Jim Thorpe Area School District, such as Penn Forest and Kidder townships, have also historically collected amusement taxes.
The Pocono Mountain Visitors Bureau leases space inside the Jim Thorpe Train Station and PMVB President Chris Barrett said he’s had a firsthand look at the impact of the train rides.
“This is a very unfortunate development,” Barrett said of Wednesday’s news. “I’m hopeful discussion will continue to take place. We’re very supportive of that process. The trains have an incredible impact on not only the county, but the Pocono Mountains as a whole.”
State Sen. John Yudichak called the loss the train excursions in Jim Thorpe “a huge blow.”
“The closure of the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway in Jim Thorpe is a terrible blow for the merchants and taxpayers of Carbon County, who have witnessed an extraordinary growth in the tourism industry as a result of the substantial personal investment Andy Muller and the Reading Blue Mountain and Northern Railroad made in the region,” Yudichak said.
“I will work with all parties, especially the business community of Jim Thorpe, in the coming days to do everything possible to keep the passenger excursion train rides of the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway coming to beautiful Jim Thorpe.”