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Village of Ashley struggling with no Polar Express trains coming for Christmas season

The popular trains brought Christmas cheer and about $100,000 to the tiny village
Published: Dec. 3, 2020 at 12:19 PM EST
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ASHLEY, Mich. (WJRT) - It’s the virus that stole Christmas.

COVID-19 idled Michigan’s North Pole Express this year. The well-known tourist attraction brought in big bucks for stops along the train route and the village of Ashley in Gratiot County is feeling the financial pinch.

The Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso operates the historic 12-25 Pere Marquette train, which is better known as the Polar Express. But the steam engine is sitting idle inside its garage instead of carrying thousands of passengers on the rails.

“This engine was used for the cartoon for the sound. Everything you see in that (movie). We worked with Warner Brothers,” said Kim Springsdorf, who is executive director of the Steam Railroading Institute.

The Steam Railroading Institute started making trips with the Polar Express train to the Village of Ashley in Gratiot County six years ago. The train carries thousands of people to the small village of 500 residents.

“We all looked forward to this. This was the highlight of the year and it actually put us on the map,” said Ashley Village President Ann Paksi.

For years, Ashley would go all out and bring the Christmas spirit to life, but much of that spirit is gone this year without the train. There are a few lights on the buildings and some tinsel around the street lights.

“Even our shop. We haven’t even gone to the decorating of the shop like we used to,” said Marcie Thompson, owner of The Lattice Co., which is a florist in downtown Ashley.

Sadly, most of the decorations, including Santa’s sleigh, are collecting dust.

“I mean, this is dead,” Paksi said.

She said Ashley usually gets about $100,000 a year in revenue from the Polar Express trains, which is big for the tiny village. The Lattice Co. depends on the holiday rush.

“I would say we probably have had an impact of about 40%,” Thompson said.

The Steam Railroading Institute wants to be back in business this time next year, but the Owosso nonprofit depends on ticket sales that won’t be coming in this year. Springsdorf said the organization has lost more than $1 million in ticket sales, which helps keep the train running.

“Every bit of money we make here goes right back into keep historic steam engine alive,” she said.

Click here for information about how to make a donation to the Steam Railroading Institute.

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