Railroad museum, City at odds over use of retail space

Railroad museum, City at odds over use of retail space

EL PASO, Texas - A downtown El Paso museum has accused the city of raising its rent but the city of El Paso said the museum encroached on retail space the museum did not have permission to use.

The Railroad and Transportation Museum, run by a non-profit preservation society has been housed in a city building downtown for more than 10 years. Located on the bottom floor of the Union Plaza parking garage on Durango and San Antonio streets, the museum houses a restored locomotive and family heirlooms of various transportation workers.

It also has photographs and books on trolleys, locomotives and trails in the El Paso area. The city so far has let the museum use the building free of charge.

The museum director, Prince McKenzie said the museum was recently notified that they'd have to pay $1,500 a month or vacate part of the museum. The city said the museum has encroached on an additional 1,225 square feet of retail space in the building that the museum never had permission to use.

City Manager Joyce Wilson, in an email, wrote the city has been trying for months to formalize a lease with the museum for the part of the building the city does allow it to use.

The city said it has offered the museum to formally lease the allowed space for only $1 a year, but the museum must agree to leave the retail space they are using without permission.

"As part of the negotiations the city has requested the museum vacate the retail area or pay market rent. To date they have been non-responsive and uncooperative. Unfortunately, as in the past, whenever we press for compliance the organization goes to external sources to try to get the City to cease," she wrote.

McKenzie denied being uncooperative and said the city has in the past given the museum informal, verbal permission to use the additional retail space. When asked to name the city employee who had given the museum verbal permission, McKenzie said he could not remember who it was.

"The point is that the value of what we have been doing by far exceeds the value of rental on that small space," he said. McKenzie said the museum has helped restore and maintain a historic locomotive for the city and has attracted about 10,000 visitors every year to the museum.  "We've been providing a valuable service for all these years and never asked for any compensation."

The City Manager said there are several issues at hand.

"The City is liable as it is our facility and our liability. Having tenants without a formal lease increases our liability and exposure. Furthermore, we have interest in the retail space that this group should never have occupied. This facility was funded through federal grants and all proceeds go directly to the Sun Metro enterprise fund. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to attempt to lease any available space for appropriate market rents," Wilson said.

The city says the museum must vacate the retail space immediately it's using unlawfully or the city will take legal action. "Bottom line, they can remain in the original footprint with a lease for $1 annually so long as they adhere to the terms and requirements of the lease. They must immediately vacate the retail space that they are occupying inappropriately or we will need to take formal action which we hope to avoid," wrote Wilson.

McKenzie is still hoping he can raise funds to stay in the retail space but understands it's unlikely. "Not allowing us access to that part of the building really inhibits us from fulfilling our purpose as a museum," he said.

The museum's space they are allowed to use is more than 3,000 square feet, compared to the retail space, which is about 1,200 square feet. McKenzie said the museum hosts changing exhibits in the retail space, though he admits it's a bit messy.

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