After decades of requests from residents and years of negotiation with city officials, Amtrak is announcing that it will renovate its station in Camden and the surrounding property. Work will begin Aug. 4, and -- according JarVor Williams, an Amtrak construction engineer overseeing the project -- make the facility compliant with the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Williams, and Amtrak Director of Government Affairs Todd Stennis, appeared with other colleagues at a Camden City Council work session Tuesday afternoon, all of whom mentioned that they had recently “acquired” Camden as one the station in their territory.
After a brief introduction from Stennis, Williams spoke first, thanking the city for recently completed work making improvements to the entrance to the station off West DeKalb Street at Chesnut Ferry Road Ext.
“It’s an outstanding job and on behalf of Amtrak, we do appreciate that,” Williams said, and then announced that “several” projects would be performed at the station. “The first project will be the roof and canopy project, which will include a brand new canopy. A lot of the members on the canopy aren’t really sound anymore, so those will be replaced. The entire decking, as well. The roof on the station itself will be replaced in its entirety as well as windows and doors.”
He said work on the building will meet the station’s “historical aspects,” in an attempt to make it as “close to perfect as the station was originally built to.”
“And it’s already been approved by the state historical preservation office,” Williams said, who will serve as engineering manager for the project.
He said CSX Railroad, which actually owns the property, has already been contacted about the project. Williams also gave an estimate of September 30 for the first phase of work to be completed.
At that point, Williams said, Amtrak plans to move on to the interior of the station in an attempt to make the facility ADA compliant.
“We’ll start from the parking lot,” he said. “It’s basically going to encompass … accessibility from the parking lot to the platform, from the platform into the station, from the station into the restrooms, back out and, obviously, on to the train.”
Part of that project, Williams said, will renovate the restrooms, making them ADA compliant as well.
“Essentially, an entire gutting of the of the interior that’s currently in use in order to meet ADA compliance,” Williams said.
He said he was not sure if the same company that is handling the first phase of work will be awarded the second project bid. If so, Williams believed the company could smoothly transition into that second phase. If not, he said a second contractor would begin work after Sept. 30.
Williams noted that a small patch of area that needs to be paved is not included in either phase, but that Amtrak “will have it completed” once the entire project is done.
“Prior to us walking away from this project, the paving will be complete, the accessibility from the parking lot … will be complete, the restrooms, the access, the roof, canopy, floors and windows will be complete. And we should have us a beautiful station restored back to ‘like new,’” he said.
After confirming several details with Williams, Councilman Willard Polk said he was “certainly happy” to see Amtrak performing this work.
“There have been a number of folks over the years who have been trying to mediate the … preservation of this treasure,” Polk said. “I, for one, congratulate Amtrak on, finally, getting the job done.”
Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford asked Stennis if there were any plans to allow third parties to set up shop inside the station.
Stennis said that was unlikely, and explained why it has taken so long for Amtrak to get around to fixing up the Camden station.
“We’re making an investment in a building that we don’t own,” he said. “At the end of the day, the structure is still owned by CSX. What everybody needs to understand is that … when you have a limited amount of resources, you literally have to pick and choose where to spend those dollars in each respective fiscal year. We’re certainly glad to be in a position to be able to do it here in Camden, now.”
Stennis suggested that the city speak to CSX about other uses for the interior of the building and that he would be willing to facilitate that contact.
He also informed council that Amtrak has wayfinder and other signage it can place in the city pointing to the fact that Camden has an Amtrak station and how to locate it. All of the signage -- and as many signs as Camden wants -- can be provided free of charge, Stennis said.
“If you’ve never been to Camden before in your life, you have no idea where the train station is, where would you all put those signs for someone coming to Camden who’s never been here before? The person who’s riding the train … may not be from Camden, but also may be somebody who wants to come back to Camden,” Stennis said.
He said there is also an opportunity for Camden to partner with Amtrak on its Great American Stations website. Camden’s station is already on the website (www.greatamericanstation.com/Stations/CAM) and includes a photograph, its annual revenue ($357,039), ridership (3,584), features, the fact that it is served by Amtrak’s Silver Star line (connecting Miami with Washington, D.C.), a link to the city’s website and a brief history of the station and the city.
Stennis also informed council that in an effort to turn around slipping ridership numbers, Amtrak is making some changes.
“We have ordered 125 new single-level, long distance passenger cars. They are in production as we speak. The initial prototypes … are in test mode right now,” he said. “We’ve got new baggage cars and new baggage-dormitory cars that are half baggage, half crew … and new dining cars.”
Stennis said the baggage and dining cars are the oldest in service, having been manufactured between 1948 and 1957.
“Those cars will be replaced in the coming months with new, modern equipment,” he said, adding that the Silver Star line that comes to Camden will have the new cars.
Councilman Walter Long expressed his appreciation for Amtrak’s willingness to go forward.
“The investment the city made … and the amount of work you’re about to put into this facility -- thank you for making that investment on the property,” Long said.
Mayor Tony Scully then recognized county resident Sidney Butler, who he said has kept up on transportation issues in and around Camden for some time. Butler, who also spoke about the Amtrak station to county council during its meeting Tuesday evening, said that he was ill two years ago and needed family members to come to Camden to help him.
“I’ve got sisters in New York and New Jersey and they had to avoid the train to come here to Camden (because) there were no lights and no restroom. I went to Kershaw County Council and I complained of that,” Butler said.
Simultaneously, he said, he contacted members of the county’s congressional delegation. He said U.S. Representative Mick Mulvaney sent a congressional aide to Camden to inspect the station with Butler. He said that led to meetings with Mulvaney about the station.
“I’m proud to see that it’s being upgraded and I hope it will stay in passenger use because it is not right for people that are traveling 900 miles from New York and New Jersey here to see a loved one and don’t have a place to get off and have to go to Columbia or Florence,” Butler said. “People from this county are going to Florence or Columbia to get on the Amtrak train and then ride back through this county.”
Butler said he also spoke to U.S. Sen. Tim Scott about that as well.
According to Amtrak’s posted schedule -- online, at the station and in a schedule book Stennis handed out to council -- Amtrak stops in Camden at 12:50 a.m. and 4:50 a.m. each day. Stennis said that schedule is unlikely to change.
As Stennis completed his presentation, City Manager Mel Pearson told him that the city is “being marketing in ways that it never has never been marketed before.”
“This partnership with the train station certainly gives us an opportunity to market train usage as well,” Pearson said. “We hope ridership will go up significantly.”
Stennis said that, while it doesn’t happen everywhere, Amtrak has found that when it has reinvested in a train station during the last 10 to 15 years, it spawns economic development.
“Watch and see what happens,” Stennis said. “Look at the possibilities of what can happen when a step like that is made. It’s certainly a step in the right direction.”
Councilman Polk’s wife, Kay, who worked for many years to have the train station preserved, spoke during the regular meeting’s public forum.
“I am extremely pleased to see Amtrak here (today) to present their plans for improvements to the station,” Kay Polk said. “Beginning in the early 1990s, many private individuals were involved and worked to preserve our historic railroad station. They called on the city for support of their efforts and the city failed them then.”
She said she became involved in 2007 and was disappointed in reactions from previous councils.
She went on to talk a little of the station’s 77-year history, noting that it was listed in 1998 by the Great American Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as being among the top 10 endangered stations.
“It was also listed in the National Register in the year 2000. It is truly a treasure to the city of Camden and, without a doubt, it needs to be preserved,” Kay Polk said.
She said it was so listed due to its representation of mid-20th century train stations and its contribution to the city’s economic development. She said the latest improvements by the city, and those on the way from Amtrak would most likely improve Camden’s image and stimulate new economic development in the surrounding area.
“I sincerely wish for all a successful outcome with these current negotiations and certainly hope that the city of Camden will partner with CSX and Amtrak to fully restore this historic station to its former beauty.,” Kay Polk said.
(Coming Monday: other business from both city council’s work session and regular meeting, including reports on the Camden Archives and Museum, a proposal to renovate Rhame Arena and recognition of Camden Fire Department Explorers.)